Are Self-Driving Cars Ready for Their Consumer Debut?

What social media conversations can tell us about the market-readiness for autonomous vehicles

Autonomous cars might soon be the road to transforming personal commute.  Ridesharing service Lyft is making driverless cars mainstream at the Consumer Electronics Show 2018 happening in Las Vegas, where consumers can hop in the passenger seat to learn what it feels like to be chauffeured to work in an autonomous vehicle.

This is notable because it’s the first time that self-driving technology company Aptiv is partnering with a transportation company to demonstrate its technology outside the controlled environment of closed parking lots. At CES, Lyft cars, powered by Aptiv, will ferry passengers to and from 20 preprogrammed destinations.

Consumers are already excited about the autonomous ride, but the real question remains: will they be as excited when the self-driving rubber meets the open road?

In 2015, the average San Francisco resident spent 230 hours commuting, and in LA and Sydney, people cumulatively spend seven working weeks each year. This is enough to explain why the public commute needs an overhaul. But if the solution is indeed more self-driving cars, are consumers ready for it?

Autonomous vehicles have been at the center of much public debate, recently legitimized by the US House, which unanimously voted for a speedy integration of autonomous cars on U.S. roads in September last year. And, if self-driving cars on the road were not enough, Uber announced its plan to develop “flying taxis” using NASA’s technology.

But the real question is how these developments have affected the US consumer and if these autonomous machines can be the panacea. In this post we look at what consumers want from the future of transportation and if self-driving cars fit the bill by looking at following trends:

  • Car sharing
  • Fear of failure
  • Hacking concerns

Care to share my ride?

It is almost certain that consumers’ first rides in autonomous cars will come through ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft. Over the last decade,these two companies have already largely displaced taxis and self-driving cars have started to hit the road in some cities.

But the real question is how these developments have affected the US consumer. Easy and relatively affordable access to ridesharing options has already contributed to a slump in car sales. The growth of ridesharing apps and increasingly long commutes have changed the calculus for many consumers in terms of buying a car of their own.

The annual cost of maintaining a car that runs for 15,000 miles a year totals $16,667 annually. Given this context, Americans are defaulting to using ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft to commute. On social, the ridesharing conversation on social, specifically about Lyft and Uber, grew from 10 percent to nearly 50 percent of share of voice since 2013. That momentum is cutting into car buying and public transit conversation volumes.

Ridesharing vs. car buying vs. public transit

The economic benefits of ridesharing need no further advocacy. But here’s more evidence — data suggests that anyone driving less than 10,000 miles might be better off not owning a car and using ridesharing instead. A study conducted earlier this year estimated that it would take only 650 “shared cars” to replace all of San Francisco’s cabs. Car buying conversation has remained fairly flat over the past six years. But Crimson Hexagon’s analysis revealed correlations between car buying and ridesharing in cities like Austin and Philadelphia, which have fewer public transportation options.

This prevalent demand for self-driving cars in the ridesharing economy is timely as autonomous Lyft and Uber rides hit the road. In September last year, Uber announced its self-driving cars had racked up 1 million miles in autonomous mode, a milestone that took 2.5 years to reach and Lyft started offering self-driving car trips in Boston, developed by startup NuTonomy.

Fear of Failure

As the industry braces itself up for centerstage, some key concerns remain. From the consumer standpoint, the discussion although voluminous, is quite polarized in sentiment. Fear and anger emerged as the most prominent emotions for self-driving cars, and fear has increased from 30% in 2010 to 50% in 2016.

The U.S. House took a major step forward on its way to transforming transportation by unanimously voting for a speedy integration of autonomous cars on U.S. roads. But the legality of self-driving cars is only part of the equation. Even as state and federal government agencies pave the way for self-driving cars, many are wondering whether consumers are ready.

The answer is, not yet, but we might be getting there. Although the conversation on social is accelerated, it mostly divided between those who embrace the idea of autonomous vehicles taking over and those who are more skeptical than evangelical.

As we can see from the graph above, most developments related to self-driving cars elicit a negative response from consumers on social. Unsurprisingly, this spike in fear and anger — coupled with the growing discussion about hacking and accidents — is mirrored in a recent dip in the overall sentiment around the topic. In fact, as of the beginning of 2017, negative driverless car conversation is 3x more common than positive.

Experts believe that one way to allay this fear is for AVs to have a friendly face. Humans tend to anthropomorphize things and this goes a long way in detecting friendliness or fear. “It is the lens we measure risk by. ‘Is this thing/person going to kill me?’ It is literally the first response our brain has to encountering an unfamiliar thing, and quickly analyzing a face is the first bit of data we have to support that decision,” Kerri Gould, senior design project manager at a San Francisco-based digital agency, Punchcut told Motherboard.

Advocates of the proposal hope self-driving cars can help curb U.S. road deaths, which rose 7.7 percent in 2015, the highest annual jump since 1966. A U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study done in 2014 cited that U.S. traffic crashes cost society $836 billion a year in economic loss.

While most autonomous cars will be trained to respond appropriately in emergency situations, the measure passed by the House is aimed at bringing self-driving cars to market soon and would allow automakers to obtain exemptions to deploy up to 25,000 vehicles without meeting existing auto safety standards in the first year.


Technology will determine what roads of the future will look like. Consumer preferences are always changing and adapting as the market evolves. While self-driving cars have a long road to complete acceptance, whether it means that cars have a friendly face or are hack-proof, the onus of making consumers feel safe rests with the industry.

But social media conversations can help automakers take stock of how they need to prepare for the future and preempt solutions for problems and detect consumer concerns and address them in a timely manner.

To learn more about consumer conversations regarding the automotive industry, download our report below.


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