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This Might Be Google's Biggest Hurdle In Launching Driverless Cars

By Daniel B. Kline – Mar 6, 2016 at 11:49AM

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It's common to assume that legal concerns are the problem, but it looks like there is another big barrier.

Whenever the media discusses Alphabet's (GOOG -0.96%) (GOOGL -1.13%) efforts to create driverless cars the stories tend to focus on regulatory concerns as the largest barrier. But while those problems are significant, the biggest hurdle facing any company attempting to enter this space may be that people may not actually want to use the technology.

Of course, there was always going to be some percentage of the public that resisted the idea of turning over the wheel to an artificial intelligence simply because they like driving. The man or woman who buys a fancy sports car that makes no economic sense while getting terrible gas mileage does so to drive it, not so he or she can read or sleep while being ferried to work.

Google has been testing its self-driving car. Source: Google

But it's not the passionate drivers Google, Apple (AAPL -1.91%), and any other company will have to convince in order to make driverless cars a reality, it's the fearful ones, according to a new survey by AAA.

What does the survey say?
Whether people want a driverless car or not is irrelevant if they are afraid to get into one, and the AAA report found that three out of four report feeling "afraid" to ride in a self-driving car. The survey also showed that respondents who own vehicles equipped with semi-autonomous features are, on average, "75% more likely to trust the technology than those that do not own it, suggesting that gradual experience with these advanced features can ease consumer fears." 

While Americans are nervous about turning over total control of their car, they do appear to be willing to give up some of it. Nearly two-thirds (61%) of U.S. drivers told AAA they wanted at least one of the following assisted-driving technologies for their next car: automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, self-parking technology, or lane-keeping assist.

"With the rapid advancement toward autonomous vehicles, American drivers may be hesitant to give up full control," said John Nielsen, AAA's managing director of Automotive Engineering and Repair. "What Americans may not realize is that the building blocks toward self-driving cars are already in today's vehicles and the technology is constantly improving and well-trusted by those who have experienced it."

Is this good for Google?
In the short-term getting people to turn over control of their cars might be too big a challenge. That could be bad news for Google, which has centered its vehicle efforts on creating driverless vehicles. It might be better news for Apple, a company that has not even admitted it's operating in the space though its hiring suggests that it is.

An article in The Wall Street Journal, Apple Targets Electric-Car Shipping Date for 2019, cited unnamed sources saying the company doesn't currently plan to make its first electric vehicle fully autonomous even though adding driverless technology is part of its long-term strategy. That might be a more sensible play not only because it eases regulatory concerns, but because it will ease consumers into something that is very different from their current experience.

It's probably coming
It's easy to be afraid of a technology that you have never used nor seen being used. When I first got a car with cruise control in the early 1990s I used it very reluctantly with my foot close to the pedal. Now, that particular driver assist is familiar and I'm much less on edge and diligent while using it.

In time the same will be true of driverless cars. People will experience the cars in a controlled setting -- maybe a city or even a vacation environment -- and slowly their use will spread as fears dissipate. Google might be taking too straight a line, but other companies, whether it's Apple or one of the carmakers putting a toe into this space, will pave the way and ultimately driverless cars will be a reality.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple. He would happily work in the car on his way to work. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), and Apple. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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