By Kathy Rizk
In 2015, I took my first ride in a prototype autonomous vehicle. I kept saying to myself, “What in the world am I doing?” The word “trepidation” doesn’t begin to convey the angst I felt or my perceived lack of judgment. Once inside the vehicle, my uneasiness was magnified when I was asked to sign a stack of legal waivers allowing me to take this one-mile ride. My job at J.D. Power requires me to know a lot about new cars and technologies, but I don’t recall reading about risk-taking on my job description. I asked myself, “If autonomous vehicles are only a few years away from being on public roads, is the technology so sketchy that they anticipate it won’t work? Is a failure or crash imminent?” Regardless, I signed away my rights, and buckled myself in.
The ride was both exhilarating and frightening. I watched anxiously from the back seat while the vehicle proceeded down the road, without the driver continuously having his hands on the wheel, nor feet working the pedals.
Several times during the ride, however, the driver was forced to suddenly take control of the vehicle, as the autonomous system failed. Naturally, this caused my heart to pound, and pulse to quicken.
After lasting for what seemed an eternity, the expedition had come to an end. As I exited the vehicle, a sense of relief washed over me, and also a feeling of accomplishment. I survived!
Since that initial ride, I’ve expanded my familiarity with autonomous technology. I recently “drove” some Level II (auto steering and adaptive cruise control) autonomous vehicles, including the Tesla Model S, Tesla Model X, BMW 7 Series, Mercedes E Class, and Genesis G90.
Similar to my first ride, my first “driving” experience was terrifying. I mean, I hate scary movies, so why am I scaring myself? My hands were never more than a finger nail away from steering wheel, and my feet never more than toe-tap away from the brake pedal.
Sure enough, systems disengaged many times in each vehicle I tested. The vehicles struggled to stay centered in the lane, overcorrected when moving too far to the right or left, unexpectedly merged into other lanes and abruptly slowed the vehicle. It was emotionally taxing, for sure!
While one of the goals of autonomous vehicles is to allow the “driver” to relax and enjoy the ride, my initial experience was the opposite. Thankfully, however, I found that each time I headed onto the route, the more comfortable and relaxed I became—even though the autonomous feature continued to disengage several times. I found myself taking in the scenery, paying attention to the conversation in the vehicle and just enjoying the ride. My hands no longer hovered above the wheel.
More recently, I rode in an Uber autonomous rideshare vehicle in Pittsburgh. Unlike my previous autonomous experience, I didn’t hesitate to sign the long legal waiver.
As I expected, the technology failed during the ride, but my heart did not pound when the Uber driver grabbed the wheel, nor did I have the urge to fight him for control of the vehicle. Instead, I stayed calm and took in the scenery. In fact, I almost forgot that I was in an autonomous vehicle.
I no longer perceived riding in an autonomous vehicle as a once-in-a-lifetime experience; rather, I saw it as an inevitable part of my future. Speaking with other autonomous Uber customers, I learned they felt the same way, noting that getting picked up in an autonomous Uber ride-hailing vehicle was just part of everyday life in the city.
Funny how quickly things change.
The challenge for vehicle manufacturers now is two-fold: fix the technology hiccups and get consumers to experience the technology for themselves. The answer lies in the ability of manufacturers to build the trust between human emotion and technological reliability. While emotions of skepticism and distrust for automation have increased among consumers, with much of it caused by uncertainty and the fear of technology failure, according to J.D. Power’s 2017 U.S. Tech Choice Study, the auto industry is counting on these fears to be subsided once customers experience the technology for themselves—and in my case, experiencing it a couple of times.
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Kathy Rizk is director of global automotive consulting at J.D. Power. She looks forward to more autonomous vehicle experiences, especially during rush hour.
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