Do me a favor. The next time you're driving down the road, take your hands off of the steering wheel, put them firmly on the ceiling of the car, and see how long you can go before you completely freak out and grab the steering wheel again. Wait, scratch that. That's a ludicrous idea. Your car can't drive itself yet, and I don't want you blaming me for your eventual accident.
For some of us -- the ones who've been driving in traditional vehicles for decades -- riding in a self-driving car could feel a lot like the example above. Let's call it the weirdness factor. A car that drives itself around without the need for us to direct it will simply freak a lot of people out.
There are plenty of other inhibitors to driverless cars. Snow is currently one of them (they're working on that), but one of the biggest problems will be us. And there are few good indicators as to why.
You don't adopt new technology as fast as you think you do
Over the past century, humans have adopted some pretty amazing technologies. Electricity, telephones, radio, television -- you get the idea. And in general, we've gotten faster at accepting new technologies than we have in the past. But we're still pretty slow.
According to data from the MIT Technology Review (republished on Phone Arena), it took the U.S. population 30 years for just 10% of us to get electricity (yikes!). That was a long time ago, and the underlying infrastructure was substantial, so we'll give our past countrymen a free pass on that one. But more recently, it still took us eight years for just 10% of the population to get a smartphone. And at 10.5 years, smartphones found themselves in the hands of only 40% of U.S. consumers.
Remember, we're just talking about a phone here, not a self-driving car that we're entrusting our lives with. I think it's pretty safe to say that even if tech adoption rates are somewhat speeding up, it's going to take much longer for us to hop into a driverless car than it was for us to put an Internet-enabled, touchscreen phone into our pockets.
You like to be in control
If, by some unprecedented chance, we are more willing to adopt driverless cars than we were smartphones, it's still possible we'll run into yet another obstacle: our fear of not being in control.
When we drive, we run the show. But we'll have to cede that control to autonomous cars when they hit the road. This may sound great now, because we can imagine all the extra work we'll get done on our commute (or the mobile games we'll play) and how much better it'll be to take a nap rather than deal with the guy that just cut us off.
But it may take us a while to feel relaxed in our artificially intelligent cars. Consider a common anxiety that plagues nearly 40% of Americans: the fear of flying. One of the major stress factors associated with flying is a fear of not being in control. If something goes wrong in the plane, you have no way of fixing the issue. You have to trust the pilot and the crew 100% of the time.
Now, driverless cars to flying is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but there are similarities. In a driverless car, as in a plane, you're just along for the ride. Software and hardware in autonomous cars will -- especially if they're going to save lives -- control the vehicle the vast majority of the time. And that's going to make a lot of people anxious.
Of course, unlike flying, most self-driving cars will have a way for passengers to take back over control in certain situations. But that won't be the default setting. Most of the time, you and I will be passively sitting in our vehicles.
Alphabet's Google didn't want steering wheels in its driverless car prototypes, essentially because humans are the ones making all of the mistakes. That doesn't yet match up with autonomous car testing laws in the U.S., but it's a still a focus for the company.
Maybe you're ready to travel down the highway at 65 MPH with cars all around you and no steering wheel -- but there are plenty of others who aren't.
You're easily distracted
Even for those driverless cars that do keep a steering wheel around for emergencies, the likelihood of you making the right decision in those situations seems a bit low.
Researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute are studying how people act while riding in self-driving cars. More specifically, if people are aware of what's going on around them.
Most of the time, this won't matter. But in those instances where the autonomous car software doesn't know what to do, and you have to take back over control, the researchers suggested you and I still need a lot of situational awareness to make the right decision, and we may not have it because we've been too busy doing something else.
Autonomous cars will be a reality on our roads soon enough. And while the hype may be a bit overblown right now, there's no denying tech companies and automakers are moving quickly in this direction. But we'll have to address our own shortcomings that could hold the technology back before we reach true driverless car ubiquity.