Thatcham automation survey - hero

Confused UK drivers believe they can buy a fully autonomous car today

Image credit: Thatcham Research

Over half of UK drivers think that they can buy a fully autonomous car today – a startling statistic revealed as part of Thatcham Research's 'Trust In Automation' survey.

Thatcham's 'Trust in Automation' consumer study – compiled from data gathered earlier this year by Opinion Matters from a sample of 4,000 car owners (2,000 in the UK, 2,000 in the US) – has revealed that just over half of UK drivers think that they can buy a fully autonomous car today.

The survey framed the 'fully autonomous' question by asking respondents if they thought it was possible to purchase a car today that can drive itself, where by ‘drive itself’ this meant a car with technology that can drive the car completely autonomously, as safely as a competent human driver would, and which allows the driver to remove their hands from the steering wheel.

However, only 'assisted driving' systems, which require driver support, are currently available in the UK.

“Realising the government’s stated safety ambition for automated vehicles is dependent on driver education,” said Matthew Avery, chief strategic research officer, Thatcham Research. “This can’t just be lip service. With more than half of the UK public believing that autonomous driving is here today, the perception is racing ahead of the reality. 

"This demonstrates just how much work needs to be done to set realistic consumer expectations of the first vehicles offering limited self-driving functionality, when they do become available. 

"Put simply, the benefits of automation will not be delivered if people don’t fully understand its limitations.”

UK roads will potentially see vehicles with ‘self-driving capability’ by 2025, according to a recent government announcement. However, the first iterations of the technology, known as 'Automated Lane Keeping Systems' (ALKS) can only be activated on motorways with the driver needing to resume control as required.

The false impression regarding the current availability of self-driving technology was found to be more prevalent in younger age groups (77 per cent of 17–24-year-olds) than it was among those aged 55+ (41 per cent). The figure rose to an astonishing 72 per cent of the 2,000 drivers surveyed in the US.

The survey also revealed that 73 per cent of UK motorists recognise the potential benefits of emerging automated driving technology. When asked what they consider the key benefits of the technology to be, the most popular option was improving safety through removing human error (21 per cent), followed by improving mobility for the elderly and disabled (14 per cent) and reducing pollution through fewer traffic jams and unnecessary acceleration/deceleration (8 per cent). Very few drivers saw freeing up time to work (3 per cent), entertain themselves (3 per cent) or sleep (2 per cent) as advantages to automation.

“Drivers are beginning to recognise that automation can deliver significant societal benefit in terms of safety, mobility and sustainability,” Avery said. “However, with safety being such a high priority for drivers, accidents that do occur will be scrutinised under the media microscope, quickly eroding consumer confidence.

“The industry must be cautious with the language employed to sell automation and drivers must be made aware of the limitations of systems, a small number of which are already on sale and in-use in Germany with ALKS fitted. This is vital not only during the early stages of adoption but also as we move towards fuller levels of automation.”

In November 2021, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) launched guiding principles to ensure that automated vehicle marketing is clear and comprehensible.

Developed in partnership with the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles’ AV-DRiVE Group, the principles provide an outline for responsible advertising and communication relating to automated vehicles and their capabilities. 

Tesla disingenuously calling the Level 2 automation in its vehicles 'Autopilot', for example, has proved contentious and potentially fatal for some drivers. Numerous legal claims are already open against Tesla with regard to its Autopilot claims, and the company is also under criminal investigation by the US federal agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is looking into Autopilot's role in at least 11 Tesla crashes involving emergency vehicles since 2018.

“It’s crucial that the SMMT’s existing guidelines are adhered to, along with the subsequent principles currently in development with the AV-DRiVE Group for ALKS specifically. This is an ongoing communication through the stages of Automation at various touchpoints – encompassing carmaker marketing, how the systems interact with drivers, and how system capability is described in dealerships,” Avery said.

With safety perceived as a key benefit of automation, the majority of drivers (76 per cent) involved in Thatcham's survey said that they would still keep their own eyes on the road when the first cars with self-driving capabilities were made available to them, in spite of reassurances that the technology would specifically allow them to take their eyes off the road.

Avery said: “Even when told they can rely on the system and take their eyes off the road, most people would still prefer to oversee the driving task. This suggests that although safety is seen by many to be a key benefit of automation, trust and confidence needs to be nurtured over time.”

The same percentage of respondents said they would not totally discount the idea of buying a vehicle with self-driving capability, although the majority are keen to see the technology prove itself before they personally give it the green light. Forty-four per cent said they would wait for the technology to mature before purchasing a self-driving car when available; 16 per cent said they would purchase a vehicle with self-driving technology, but only if it comes with a car they already intended to buy; 4 per cent said they will purchase a car with self-driving capability as soon as possible, while 24 per cent of UK respondents said they would completely avoid buying a car with self-driving capability.

“With the majority of drivers stating that they intend to keep a watching brief on how the technology behaves on the roads, it’s vital that all industry stakeholders come together to instil trust in automation by ensuring motorists have a firm grasp of their legal obligations and the performance limitations of systems,” said Avery.

Responding to Thatcham's survey, Steve Gooding, director, RAC Foundation, said: “This research provides some valuable insights for policy-makers keen to usher in the start of automated driving. Given all the hype surrounding automated car technology, particularly coverage of autonomous cars and taxis operating in the US, it isn’t surprising that some people think self-driving cars are already available on the UK market.

“The most important point that this research highlights is the need to ensure drivers understand the limits of automated options when they do first appear on UK roads, particularly where the system requires the driver to stand ready to re-take control.”

Jonathan Dye, chair of the Automated Driving Insurer Group (ADIG) and head of underwriting at QBE, said: “The research clearly highlights it is critical for the safe deployment of self-driving vehicles that drivers (or in the future ‘users in charge’) have a clear understanding of a vehicle’s capabilities and therefore their obligations regarding its safe use.

“In addition to education and collaboration across industry sectors, a key element will be the sharing of data and the transparency of what each specific vehicle is capable of at a point in time. With some models likely to have the self-driving technology as ‘optional’, or as an ‘over the air update’, meaning it would be possible to change a vehicle’s capabilities overnight, it’s imperative the driver has a full and clear understanding of the vehicle’s limitations post update and that they are adequately protected by purchasing an appropriate insurance product.”

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