Nearly 1.25 million people die in road crashes each year, according to the Assn. for Safe Intl. Road Travel, and 94% of these crashes are caused by human error, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. Statistics like these—along with massive traffic congestion in urban areas worldwide—have fueled the autonomous-driving movement.

And it’s a movement with momentum. Forbes predicts the global market for autonomous vehicles will reach nearly $557 billion by 2026. That’s why automakers and software firms, from companies like GM and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo to start-ups like Burlingame, Calif.-based Phantom AI, are accelerating efforts to bring us a safer, less frenetic self-driving future.

But the road to fully autonomous, Level 5 vehicles is long—and so far it has been bumpy and dangerous. Last year, a woman crossing a busy intersection in Tempe, Ariz. was struck and killed by an autonomous Uber vehicle—the first reported incidence of someone being killed by a self-driving vehicle. And Tesla’s autopilot system has to date led to two fatal crashes. That’s one reason 71% of Baby Boomers surveyed by Cox Automotive say they won’t buy a fully autonomous vehicle.

But that’s changing. A new report by Capgemini Research Institute, “The Autonomous Car: A Consumer Perspective, suggests that during the next decade american consumers will increasingly embrace self-driving cars in the U.S.

 

A Long Road

Despite growing consumer acceptance, getting there will take longer than anticipated. That’s because safety is only one obstacle automakers must overcome before self-driving technology becomes commonplace. Other challenges include developing the necessary infrastructure and regulations to support self-driving vehicles, as well as overcoming the high cost of LiDAR, the surveying technology used to map a vehicle’s surroundings.

Technologists haven’t quite worked out flawless navigation in a world made up of other vehicles traveling at highway speeds. Operating in poor weather conditions and harsh climates are among the many technical issues that remain. According to the report, 71% of consumers fear self-driving vehicles may get confused by unexpected situations.

And there are legal issues to address. For instance, who is at fault if a self-driving car crashes? Since the “driver” is essentially a passenger, does it make sense for he or she to be responsible? What about the company that built the car? Or the company that operates a fleet of autonomous cars as part of a livery service?

“There are so many details that still need to be worked out before self-driving cars take over our roads,” said Peter Winston, CEO of ICS (Integrated Computer Solutions). Questions such as, “Who’s insurance pays for damages caused by an accident? Does a driver even need insurance? How about a driver’s license? And what will automakers’ liability be,?” Winston explains.

 

Will Consumers Buy it?

Though technical and regulatory obstacles are real, the most pressing challenge is garnering public acceptance. Less than 50% of consumers say they want self-driving cars, according to the 2018 Cox Automotive survey.

This lack of enthusiasm is due in large part to worries over safety. For this reason, ensuring self-driving vehicles are safe with a capital S is the only way to realize a fully autonomous future. So what’s happening in the meantime?

“Until all the complex safety issues are worked out, automakers will continue to compete on comfort and convenience by enhancing the cabin experience with in-vehicle infotainment systems nearly as usable as a smartphone,” Winston said. “And they’ll do what they can to address distracted driving, which is among the leading causes of traffic accidents.”

In the near-term expect to see more-usable vehicle infotainment systems in showrooms, something to sate consumers’ appetite until true level 5 autonomous vehicles become commonplace—when “drivers” can finally kick back and read a book without worry as they speed down the highway.

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Jeff LeBlanc is director of user experience for both Boston UX and ICS.
Stephanie Van Ness is head of content development as senior marketing communications manager and chief storyteller at Boston UX and ICS.