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J.D. Power: Lack of consumer knowledge, lingering safety concerns hampering automated vehicle enthusiasm

A survey of 4,000 individuals across the US showed a gulf between consumer knowledge and where self-driving technology actually sits, with a lack of understanding seemingly stoking misconceptions and fears about adopting the technology.

The revamped J.D. Power 2021 Mobility Confidence Index (MCI) Study found that consumers are currently suffering from a lack of accurate knowledge about self-driving technology as education on the topic from automotive manufacturers remains sparse.

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A test of consumer knowledge was performed as part of the study in which respondents were asked to select one of seven definitions of what constitutes a fully automated vehicle (AV), per the parameters set down by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Of the seven available definitions, only two were accurate. In J.D. Power's testing, just 37% of respondents selected one of the two correct answers, while 55% selected descriptions of what would be considered "driver assist technology," a lower level of automation that can currently be found in capabilities like lane assist, active cruise control, and automated parallel parking.

Even those that self-reported as being knowledgeable about self-driving cars only showed a 32% success rate in accurately defining them. In comparison, those with no pre-existing knowledge were accurate 37% of the time. Lisa Boor, senior manager of global automotive at J.D. Power, called this outcome a "Danger, Will Robinson" moment due to its revelation that "consumers don't know what they don't know." She suggests that "AV education must expand beyond current, traditional learning methods" and implores the industry to " be the catalyst for educating the public."

While specific knowledge about self-driving vehicles may be lacking, public interest in them is trending positively. J.D. Power found a 10% year over year increase in the topic, with 51% of respondents showing passive curiosity. That said, only 29% had already or planned to seek out knowledge on AVs actively.

This lack of enthusiasm may stem from the fact that consumers still remain skittish about adopting AV technology when it personally involves them. The study found confidence in the safety and reliability of AV technology had risen to 42 points out of a possible 100. However, respondents tended to be most comfortable with AV scenarios that involved using the technology to transport or deliver goods or to provide rides to the elderly or infirm.

Two possible pathways toward increasing consumer confidence seemed to emerge from the study: education and the growth of Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS).

On the education side of things, 53% of respondents said they believed the best way to learn about self-driving cars would be a specialized class on the topic, with an even larger majority (58%) saying they would be willing to complete such a class in order to earn a specialized AV driver's license. Meanwhile, only 27% felt comfortable teaching themselves how to operate a fully automated vehicle.

ADAS systems, which are available in many cars today, show a 27% bump in comfort when compared to fully automated systems. This suggests a stronger connection between the safe, ongoing operation of such systems and their evolution into full self-driving solutions that could alleviate lingering consumer concerns about safety and reliability.

The obstacle of overcoming consumer fears about unsafe AVs is a particularly important one, according to Bryan Reimer, PhD, research scientist in the MIT AgeLab and associate director of The New England University Transportation Center. He notes that "setbacks in public trust triggered by misuse of systems or a failure of a system to perform based upon misconceived consumer expectations may hamper deployments over the coming decades, depriving consumers of the convenience and safety benefits the technology can potentially offer."

The most high-profile of the setbacks in question may be one of the fatal crashes that Tesla vehicles have been involved in while in self-driving mode. This seems particularly likely when accounting for the fact that "Tesla" was the most common word mentioned when respondents were asked to say what came to their minds when claiming fully-automated vehicles were available today. 16% of existing Tesla owners shared this misconception that their vehicles rose to the level of full automation set down by the Society of Automotive Engineers definition. 

As the availability of the first fully automated vehicles continues to approach, these lingering hesitancies will be alleviated if automotive manufacturers want to see widespread adoption of their new technology. 

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