“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
This famous quote is attributed to Henry Ford. Whether or not he actually ever said it is, frankly, neither here nor there. The quote usually rears its head when issues of design or innovation are being discussed, and it is capable of several interpretations. Does it mean that a manufacturer should totally ignore the wishes of its customers and blithely proceed with whatever new idea or concept it has in mind? Does it denigrate the customer, even to the point of portraying him or her as being mentally deficient?
It is worth pointing out that, even though Ford’s Model T was first produced in 1908, 1920 was the peak year for horse usage in the United States. Twelve years, and still the horseless carriage hadn’t gained full consumer acceptance.
Where am I going with this? To the acceptance by motorists of the autonomous car, of course. Richard Holman, the head of foresight and trends for General Motors, said recently that he expects to see self-driving cars available to the general public by 2020. Yet, I wonder if the public really buys into the idea, or is it considered to be some kind of futuristic concept, interesting but not wholly to be trusted.
In a survey of US drivers earlier this year, 37% of them were “very concerned” about riding in a fully self-driving car. This was virtually the same percentage as in an earlier survey in 2014.
Just under half of those surveyed—45.8%—indicated that they would prefer if self-driving cars were not to be made available, and 38.7% preferred partial autonomy—a self-driving car where the driver can still take the wheel if necessary. Only 15.5% preferred fully autonomous vehicles which don’t have brakes or a steering wheel. And this survey was done before the Tesla incident in which a motorist was killed when his vehicle crashed into a tractor-trailer in Florida.
The Autopilot feature was engaged at the time, Tesla has said, but neither the automatic braking system nor the driver applied the brakes before the car hit the trailer at 65 miles an hour.
This, I believe, points up the difference between the very genuine public interest in new technology and ideas and the willingness to put them to the test when one’s own safety may be on the line. As for me? I’m just popping out to feed the horse.
Simon Duval Smith
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