The SELF DRIVE Act Paves the Way for Driverless Cars

The recently passed act will help usher in autonomous vehicles — but social media data suggests consumers might not be on board.

The U.S. House just 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.

If passed by the Senate, unmanned cars will hit U.S. roads in a few months. Tesla’s autonomous car already has a road trip scheduled from Los Angeles to New York at the end of this year. Automakers including General Motors and Alphabet Inc’s self-driving unit Waymo are gearing up for car launches in 2020, and BMW and Ford will follow in 2021.

But the present wrestles with anxieties of risks involved. The concept of self-driving cars is a case in point where people see its perils before potential. Fears of hacking, news of accidents, and economic concerns are combining to cast doubt over the development of truly autonomous vehicles.

In this article we look at the recently passed SELF DRIVE Act through the lens of consumer conversation on social. Specifically, we will analyze:

  • The major topics in the social discussion of self-driving cars
  • How consumer opinion about autonomous vehicles has evolved
  • The audience discussing driverless cars

Accelerated Conversation

To analyze consumers’ comfort levels with self-driving cars, we tuned into the conversation on social and found that fewer topics have gathered the kind of momentum on social as autonomous vehicles have — from about 10,000 posts in 2010, driverless cars were the subject of more than 600,000 posts in 2016.

Fear before failure

The discussion about self-driving cars, while voluminous, is quite polarized from a consumer sentiment standpoint. 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.

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.

Why so anxious?

We have established that fear and anger are the two dominant sentiments associated with autonomous cars, but are these emotions unfounded? Or do they stem from legitimate concerns?

When we looked for the specific concerns that make consumers nervous, we identified three major themes — hackers, emergencies and job loss.

Hackers gonna hack

Most people fear that self-driving cars will be susceptible to hacker attacks. And this fear is not irrational as we have seen incidences of hackers showing off some mean tricks by remotely accelerating a jeep and slamming the brakes at high speeds.

Call 911?

Another prominent concern is whether automatic vehicles are equipped to handle emergency situations including car crashes, medical emergencies and natural hazards.

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.

What about jobs?

Additionally, consumers also fear how self-driving cars will affect taxi and ridesharing drivers on the road. Although safety is still the topmost concern for consumers, they fear that a convoy of automatic vehicles might jeopardize jobs for many cab and truck drivers.

Not just naysayers

While many rational fears can be allayed, fear of technological change cannot. To some, this revolution in transportation technology signifies an impending apocalypse, doomsday and the destruction of humanity. But tech enthusiasts who welcome change are joyous to see self-driving cars lead the technological revolution. These folks look forward to driverless cars cutting down on traffic and road rage.

Who is the audience?

We have established how and why consumers feel the way they do about autonomous vehicles, but can we know more about who they are?

When we dug into the demographics of people discussing self-driving cars, we discovered that it is not too different from the audience that discusses eco-friendly cars — it is predominantly men over 35.

Conclusion

Technology will determine what roads of the future will look like. Consumer preferences are always changing and adapting as the market evolves.

Looking at the market from the vantage point of social media conversations can help automakers take stock of how they need to prepare for the future and preempt solutions for problems.

How will road manners evolve with self-driving cars? How well-equipped are such cars to handle a medical emergency? What happens to them in a hurricane? Consumer conversations are littered with concerns and questions. Do automakers have answers?

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

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