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Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage is a California-based journalist covering clean vehicles, alternative energy, and economic and regulatory trends shaping the automotive, transportation, and mobility sectors.

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Autonomous Vehicle Breakthrough Won’t Happen Anytime Soon

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are expected to become the platform for radical transformation in the automotive sector. Traditional internal combustion engine vehicles will be replaced by electric vehicles used for shared rides and automated functionality, experts say.

The real question becomes:  When will it happen? The problem for adoption of AVs in the near future is that consumers don’t buy into it.

Half of U.S. adult survey respondents in a new study by Reuters/Ipsos believe that autonomous vehicles won't be as safe as traditional vehicles. Nearly two-thirds participating in the survey said they would not buy a fully autonomous vehicle.

About 63 percent would not pay more for a self-driving feature on their vehicle. These “connected car” features — such as backup cameras, lane-changing systems, and self-parking capability — are finding interest and adoption among car shoppers.

But nearly two-thirds balk when it comes to paying significantly more for their new car with the added features. Forty-one percent of the remaining survey respondents said they would not pay more than $2,000 — a cost that’s expected to go up even higher when fully autonomous vehicles come to market.

That's bad news for Uber, Lyft, Tesla, Alphabet’s Waymo unit, Apple, and many other companies investing heavily in the technology that is failing to leave the test stage.

Waymo has deployed a small fleet of self-driving vans to provide rides for customers in Arizona, after having put an impressive number of miles on road tests in previous years. General Motors will be testing out self-driving Chevrolet Bolts through its GM Cruise unit, and automated mobility services through its Maven car-sharing unit.

Developers of AV technology have worked hard at building public trust and commercial demand, but that has failed to change direction. Fatal crashes tied to Tesla’s Autopilot option, and a pedestrian who'd been killed last year by an Uber vehicle operating in test mode, have waved red flags over AV safety. Related: Expect An Extension Of Iran Sanction Waivers

The new study’s findings are similar to those in a 2018 Reuters/Ipsos poll. Those findings were consistent with survey results released by Pew Research Center, the American Automobile Association and others.

That barrier must be crossed with corporate and government managers who make large vehicle acquisitions for moving people and goods. Fleet operators in trucking, package delivery, shuttle buses, and other sectors, are interested in the cost benefits that may come from AVs of the future — but like consumers, they’re showing concerns over the trustworthiness of the new technology.

Very few of them have seen one of these test vehicles on roads, and even less have taken rides in test AVs. Experts say that suspicion of unknown technology can block acceptance. That has also been the case for sales of electric vehicles, which still face bypassing resistance from most car shoppers.

“People are comfortable with things they know,” said investor Chris Thomas, co-founder of Fontinalis Partners and Detroit Mobility Lab. “When everybody understands the game-changing attributes of automated vehicles, how they can give you back all that time to read or work or sleep, they will start to ask about the value of that recaptured time.”

Auto executives such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Ford chairman Bill Ford, and General Motors CEO Mary Barra, agree with Silicon Valley tech giants such as Apple and Alphabet that AVs are the wave of the future. But not all of these executives would agree. One of their chief counterparts has voiced concerns over the negative impact of Boeing having to recover from fatal crashes in its 737 airplanes.

Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche expressed concerns over acceptance of AVs in aircraft and ground transportation vehicles Tuesday at the Auto Motor and Sport conference in Stuttgart. His concerns over public acceptance of AVs came from two recent crashes of Boeing’s 737 MAX airplanes. Investigators are analyzing whether Boeing’s software-based automated flight control system is to blame.

“What is very important is the psychological dimension. If you look at what is happening with Boeing then you can imagine what happens when such a system has an incident,” Zetsche said.

“Even if autonomous cars are 10 times safer than those driven by humans, it takes one spectacular incident to make it much harder to win widespread acceptance,” he said. Related: Oil Hits 2019 High On Shale Slowdown

While Boeing has come to dominate global commercial aircraft sales, along with Europe’s Airbus, the company is seeing huge fallout from the crashes — unlike what’s usually seen after fatal airplane crashes. Major airlines are cancelling orders for the 737, and travelers are opting out of flights.

Lithuanian traveler Skirmantas Strimaitis, who was flying from Vilnius to the northern Italian city of Bergamo for a skiing holiday, found out he was the only passenger onboard the Boeing 737-800. The Novaturas travel agency said that it had chartered the plane to fly a group home from Italy through one-way ticket sales. Strimaitis was the only person who bought a seat on the flight.

Whether Boeing’s automated flight control system is deemed responsible for the fatal crashes or not, public perception of AV technology is being further tarnished.

“If there’s one (airplane) crash a year, it creates huge backlash — and airplanes are far, far safer than cars,” said future vehicle expert Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

By Jon LeSage for Oilprice.com

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  • Bill Simpson on April 04 2019 said:
    It might be 20 years before vehicles can drive from point to point without any human intervention. It may never happen due to bad weather conditions. People still need to drive in floods and snow storms. A car that can't drive through a few inches of water, or on a road covered by a little bit of snow which hides the markings, won't sell for long. How about driving when the power in the entire area is out, like it was during Hurricane Katrina with no signal lights.
    And some people might not to want to travel through the neighborhoods where a self driving vehicle might decide to take them to get a trip made as efficiently as a computer decides to do it Self helping driving is great, but total automatic control might never happen. I know I would never enter a vehicle where I couldn't take complete control at any time I wanted to, or which had a driver who could. Too many freak circumstances can occur which a machine couldn't handle.
  • bob bobert on April 05 2019 said:
    It will happen in less than 5 years. You oil guys are terrified of progress.

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