China isn't that interested in autonomous vehicles

Consumers in the largest market for automobiles in the world aren't exactly clamoring for driverless technology.

China is tepid on autonomous vehicles. That according to new research that J.D. Power and Tencent Auto recently presented at the Tencent "X Era" Automobile summit.

Drawing on a survey of 5,000 consumers in China, J.D. Power found that "just 9% are very positive on the prospect of unmanned mobility." By contrast, nearly twice as many U.S. consumers reported positive responses to autonomous vehicles.

Why does it matter? Automakers have started to pay close attention to China, the largest market for cars by sales. These results suggest that Chinese consumers have unique preferences when it comes to vehicle technology and feature cost, and that could sway automakers away from pursuing self-driving technology with the fervor we've seen over the past couple years.

It's also interesting to dissect why Chinese consumers might be averse to cars that drive themselves. In a word: status.

"[In China] traffic jams are a fact of daily life," says Geoff Broderick, VP of Asian Pacific automotive operations for J.D. Power, "but the number of motor vehicles per 1,000 people is still only a fraction of that in the United States and other developed markets. Driving in China is still a novelty and serves as a kind of socio-economic status symbol of having arrived."

In other words, the act of driving is culturally significant. American consumers in the 1950s felt a similar pride in sitting behind the wheel.

"As the market matures, consumers in China are rapidly becoming exceptionally discerning and are seeking value when considering technology and other features. This creates a unique set of preferences that are important for manufacturers to understand."

In addition to the cold reception for autonomous vehicles, the survey found that Chinese consumers don't prioritize MPG like westerner consumers. "Unlike the U.S. market, where fuel efficiency consistently ranks among the top purchase reasons, consumers in China rate energy efficiency-related features near the bottom of their priority list," according to J.D. Power. "Three of the 10 least-desired features among Chinese consumers are related to fuel efficiency."

That's bad news. China's middle class is on the rise, and the country is already the world's biggest polluter. A generation of new drivers who don't care about fuel economy isn't going to help.