People Want Safer Cars Before They Drive Autonomous Ones

Illustration for article titled People Want Safer Cars Before They Drive Autonomous Ones
Photo: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP (Getty Images)

Autonomy is constantly presented as the future of the automotive industry. Having cars that can truly be termed “self-driving” is the goal. But if you ask consumers, they’re not all that interested in that. Not when there’s work that can be done now.

Advertisement

The AAA conducts a similar survey every year, where it asks respondents how they feel about the concept of self-driving cars. This year’s study, conducted on January 15, 2021, found that a majority of people (80 percent) want automakers to be focusing predominantly on improving current safety systems before anything else. Only 22 percent of people felt that automakers should even be focusing on autonomous systems.

“People are ready to embrace new vehicle technology, especially if it will make driving safer,” said Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of automotive engineering and industry relations. “Consumers are clear about what they want and if automakers seize the opportunity to provide a better experience now, it will pave the way for the vehicles of tomorrow.”

Brannon makes a good point. It seems silly to want automakers to focus on autonomy exclusively when advanced safety features—like automatic emergency braking—still aren’t widely available. Sure, most all cars have at least one advanced safety system nowadays, but it’s still something that’s frequently confined to more expensive trims.

But not everyone has had positive experiences with those technologies. A previous AAA study showed that, for every 4,000 miles driven, vehicles equipped with active driving assistance systems experienced a problem every eight miles. Those ‘problems’ aren’t necessarily failures; sometimes it was a matter of the technology not working totally as expected, or it’s a matter of the sudden nature of that technology disengaging. Those are pretty frightening numbers for anyone who drives pretty much anywhere.

If you’re having trouble with your blind spot monitor working, for example, you’re going to be a hell of a lot less inclined to trust that every feature of your car will function smoothly without you behind the wheel.

As with any survey, there are weak points in AAA’s survey. It only surveyed 1,000 people, and while the company believes the respondents represent 97 percent of American households, a higher number of answers is always more reliable. But it still sounds like the average consumer want the current systems on their cars to work more predictably before we start giving up control.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

DISCUSSION

halftrackelcamino
Half-track El Camino

Yeah, I’m with this. Safety systems need to work reliably and predictably pretty much 100% of the time, and they need to let you know when they are not working—or else they just breed complacency and/or distrust in the operator. ABS? Works great, does its thing every time I press hard on the brakes. Traction control? Most of the time I don’t even know it’s there. Seatbelts, airbags? I trust them to do their jobs, and if they don’t then I expect there’ll be a big-ass recall ala Takata.

What happens if your blind spot monitor misses a trick, though? Or your emergency braking decides to slam on the brakes during a snowstorm? Or your lane-keep assist gets confused and tries to pilot you out of your lane? Well, that’s the driver’s fault of course! You should pay more attention, you bad driver you—nevermind that these systems are designed, built, and marketed specifically to allow drivers to pay less attention to the task of driving and have a stated goal of eventually allowing people to get in their cars and go where they want even if they’re drunk, sleeping, or not actually in the car at all.

The way I look at it, the only responsible way to drive with ADAS is to pretend it’s not even there. Do 100% of the driving just like you always would, checking over your shoulder when changing lanes and suchlike. If you fuck up (or if something fucked up happens to you) then maybe the emergency systems will swoop in to save the day and you’ll get a second chance. Relying on them as a primary means of driving seems foolhardy, although of course that is how they are used almost 100% of the time.