Most Americans Won't Be Much More Productive in Self-Driving Cars, Poll Finds

Will the mass-market introduction of automated and fully self-driving cars increase people’s productivity on the road? Not so much, according to transportation researchers.

The average American spends about an hour driving per day. Supporters of automated car technology say that one of the major benefits of self-driving cars is that instead of having to focus on traffic, occupants could devote travel time to non-driving related tasks.

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But people are unlikely to take their eyes off the road if they don’t trust the car to not malfunction and kill them, a new study from the University of Michigan's Sustainable Worldwide Transportation group suggests. 

Researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle conducted a public opinion poll and found that 23 percent of Americans said that they would not ride in a self-driving car and another 36 percent said that if they did operate a fully automated car, they would only watch the road and not engage in other activities such as sleeping, working, or texting and talking to friends and family.

And then it gets worse. Of the remaining 41 percent of Americans surveyed, 8 percent said they worried that attempting other activities like reading would cause them to experience motion sickness. Additionally participants said they were apprehensive that not sitting in traditional driver/passenger positions—for example, living room settings similar to a Mercedes-Benz’s design plan that would include motorized lounge chairs that could swivel around to allow passengers to face each other—would put them at a greater safety risk should the car get into an accident. 

There was also fear that in the case of a crash, untethered objects like laptops that might be used for non-driving activities could pose additional danger to occupants.

Those issues will need to be addressed if automakers want to convince the driving public that self-driving cars will be the ticket to a more productive life, the Michigan researchers said.

Oh, and one more kick in the pants: “Also of importance is the fact that current trips in light-duty vehicles average only about 19 minutes—a rather short duration for sustained productive activity or invigorating sleep,” according to the study.

The less-than-optimistic outlook comes as a laundry list of automakers, including Tesla, Google and General Motors, continue to test automated car technology that they plan to deploy over the next decade. 

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also is expected to release guidance on safety issues that should be considered when designing automated cars as well as model policy for states this year. And just last week, the Michigan senate passed legislation that would allow self-driving cars to operate without an occupant. In contrast, California lawmakers are mulling over draft policy that would require the presence of a licensed driver in automated cars. 

An abstract of the Transportation Research Institute’s study is available online.