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What Is the ‘Sweet Spot’ for Autonomous Driving?

Many consumers have suggested that they want cars that can drive themselves in all conditions, but still give humans the ability to take control if they want.

(TNS) — Even as automakers race forward on self-driving cars, most Americans aren’t ready to give up the steering wheel just yet.

A new survey finds that drivers remain deeply suspicious of fully autonomous vehicles that don’t give them the option of driving — the vision of the future embodied by Google’s bubble-shaped robot car.

Instead, they prefer the idea of cars that can drive themselves in all conditions but that still give humans the ability to take control if they want, according to the survey released Wednesday by the Kelley Blue Book auto information service.

“That’s the sweet spot,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “People like the idea that they can have full autonomy and full control in one car. They’re just not as confident when you take away the human-control option.”

The survey of 2,264 people also found sharp generational divides in public attitudes toward self-driving cars. The youngest members of Generation Z, who are immersed in technology and cannot yet legally drive, are by far the most comfortable with the idea of cars that allow no human control, followed by older Millennials. Baby Boomers are the least comfortable.

“‘I’m indestructible, computers do everything, they already run my life, why not run my transportation?’ — that’s the Gen Zs,” Brauer said. “Once you start driving, maybe you have more awareness of what all’s involved, and you start to get more skeptical about the computer being able to do it for you.”

The survey comes as autonomous car research, much of it based in Silicon Valley, accelerates. All of the major automakers are pursuing some version of the technology, while early, limited versions are already hitting the marketplace. Tesla Motors’ Autopilot feature, for example, can steer a car by itself on the freeway, although the company insists drivers continue to pay attention.

Debate within the industry has simmered for years over whether humans should still have the option of driving once autonomous technology has matured. Google executives have argued for cars that take driving completely out of human hands, saying humans can’t be trusted to keep at least one eye on the road. Ford Motor Co. recently endorsed the same idea.

As a result, Kelley’s survey examines awareness of and interest in different types of automated cars.

The industry uses a scale of zero to five to categorize self-driving cars, with zero representing cars in which humans control everything all the time, while five signifies cars that allow no human driving at all. (Tesla’s Autopilot, in this ranking, represents level two — able to steer itself but requiring that the driver stay mentally engaged.)

Level five, the survey found, remains a tough sell.

Thirty percent of the survey’s respondents said they would never buy a level five car, while 19 percent said they would only buy one if they couldn’t buy a non-autonomous car. And yet, 16 percent of respondents said they would buy a fully-autonomous level five car the moment those vehicles hit the market, while 35 percent said they would wait until they felt more comfortable with the technology.

Drivers seem to be much more open, however, to level four — fully autonomous cars that still allow their owners to take over when they want.

Asked to rate the appeal of the different levels, 30 percent of respondents picked level four, well above any other level. Level three cars, which can drive by themselves in certain situations without requiring the driver’s attention, were favored by just 18 percent, while level five cars were the choice of 17 percent.

“They feel like with three they can’t fully relax — they’re going to have to keep switching in and out of paying attention — and five they have no option to ever take over,” Brauer said. “But with four they get the best of both worlds.”

Some groups seem more receptive to the technology than others, according to the survey. For example, people who routinely use ride services such as Uber and Lyft are more comfortable with fully autonomous cars than those who don’t. Fittingly, Uber is already testing autonomous taxis in Pittsburgh.

Age clearly plays a role. Among respondents age 12 to 15 — the younger members of Generation Z — 73 percent said they are comfortable with level five cars. Only 20 percent of Baby Boomers gave the same answer.

Perhaps most significant: Respondents who reported having some experience driving a level two car such as a Tesla were much more open to fully autonomous cars than others.

“Once you start getting exposure to the technology, people’s attitudes change rapidly, for the better,” Brauer said.

Self-driving car levels explained

The federal government and the auto industry have developed ranking systems to describe the different levels of autonomous-car technology. Although there are slight differences among systems, here’s the general outline:

Level zero Driver performs all control functions.

Level one Driver performs most functions, but a few — such as driver-assist braking — are augmented by automation.

Level two At least two of the car’s control functions can work together in automated mode — such as adaptive cruise control combined with lane centering — but the driver still must pay attention.

Level three Driver can turn over total control of the car under certain conditions, with the car largely responsible for monitoring for any sudden changes to the environment. Driver must still be available to take control if needed.

Level four Car is capable of driving itself but has controls for humans to drive when they choose.

Level five Car drives itself, with no option for human driving.

©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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