Cadillac Escalade demonstrates a form of self-driving with Super Cruise

The road to self-driving cars is paved by the active driver assist systems that are available on most cars today. But while much attention is paid to the potential of an autonomous future, the majority of drivers (80 percent) say they want current systems, like automatic emergency braking and lane keeping assistance, to work better, according to a new survey by AAA.

By contrast, only 22 percent of survey respondents feel that manufacturers should focus on developing self-driving cars. These are among the findings from an interview-based survey of more than 1,000 adults conducted Jan. 15 to 17, 2021, by AAA.  

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AAA has conducted a similar survey annually for the past six years. The membership-based organization finds that interest in having advanced safety features on their next car continues to grow, with 58 percent reporting this year that they want them on their next car. However, just 14 percent of drivers would trust riding in a vehicle that drives itself—similar to last year’s results.

“People are ready to embrace new vehicle technology, especially if it will make driving safer,” says Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of automotive engineering and industry relations.

The findings underscore the importance for automakers to continue to refine current systems and be clear, and honest, in their capabilities. “Transparent, accurate, and frequent information from the industries involved in developing self-driving vehicles will ease consumer concerns,” Brannon says. 

Some companies have stretched credulity in naming their systems, such as Tesla’s Full Self-Driving Capability. This not only gives a false impression of the system’s capabilities but also may tarnish perceptions of driving automation, and what it will actually look like.

Despite some marketing spin, true self-driving cars are still years away. The industry has made impressive strides, but developing a system that can address rare and random occurrences, such as debris in the road or a parked emergency vehicle edging into a travel lane, is a huge challenge.

“The truth is that the systems and technologies that are being developed for future self-driving cars are already helping make driving safer for human-driven cars today,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of Consumer Reports’ auto test program. “What’s more, CR’s surveys show that people are very satisfied with systems that help make them better drivers, rather than taking the job away from them.”

The AAA report found that even during the coronavirus pandemic, only a small number of drivers would use a self-driving vehicle over public transportation or a ride-hailing service. Only about 20 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to opt for a self-driving vehicle because of COVID-19.

It is an exciting time for the auto industry and consumers, with significant technological breakthroughs promising new conveniences and safety improvements. Consumer Reports considers automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection and blind spot warning to be key safety systems that every car shopper should seek on their next vehicle. We would like to see them standard on all new cars, making it easy for shoppers to get these potentially lifesaving features.

Research by AAA shows that 96 percent of 2020 models had at least one advanced driver assistance system, and its survey underscores the importance for automakers to fine-tune today’s systems for their potential benefits and because of their influence on driver opinions of future autonomous technology.