Automakers’ rapid-fire announcements about autonomous vehicles have gotten the public’s attention. That may not be an entirely good thing.
Certainly the industry has stirred awareness that we all may spend some portion of our personal-mobility time in self-driving pod cars. Planting that notion in the group mind was important.
But there’s a sense of déjà vu about the public relations surge. It’s reminiscent of the early part of this decade, when electric vehicles were the hot topic, and the talk was all about battery technology, roadside charging stations and driving range.
The problem back then was that public enthusiasm for EVs was based on false assumptions. Several surveys showed that consumers had wildly unrealistic notions of an EVs’ price and driving range.
One example: A 2012 survey of 13,000 individuals in 17 countries by the International Council on Clean Transportation found a “significant gap between consumer expectations and EV performance.”
It showed that consumers overestimated driving range “by a factor of 2 or 3.” Likewise, potential buyers expected much quicker charging than was possible and were not willing to pay a price premium. When reality set in, interest declined to the very limited EV market that exists today.
Today’s dramatic pronouncements about self-driving vehicles risk raising similar expectations.
Most automakers’ plans, if you look at them closely, are carefully hedged.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk, for instance, has written that there will be “a significant time gap” between development of self-driving systems and when real-world vehicles are approved for sale by governments.
And Ford’s plan to have self-driving vehicles available by 2021 is predicated on them operating in “geo-fenced” areas with adequate mapping and infrastructure.
These are sensible precautions, but the nuances don’t seem to be getting through to the public. The person who died in a Tesla crash in Florida while watching a movie with the car in Autopilot mode was an extreme example.
Automotive News recently ran the results of a study of autonomous vehicles by MavenMagnet, a company that scours social media and digital forums to glimpse public attitudes. Many comments showed an eagerness for self-driving cars.
Commuters, in particular, seemed more than willing to hand off control to a robotic system during the weekday freeway slog. They said they would rather be sleeping, checking emails, watching a movie or, in one case, “doing the nasty.”
Um, whatever. But there’s a serious concern here.
Automakers and governments are likely to edge cautiously into fully self-driving vehicles, for good reason. But too much hype too soon could disillusion the public.