Why Canadians are wary of self-driving cars

29 percent of survey respondents said it would make them feel "powerless"

You had to be excited this month about autonomous cars and the promise of a driverless future—at least, if you were a politician. In Washington, the Obama administration announced plans to shower US$4 billion on the technology over the next decade. On New Year’s Day, Ontario officially fulfilled Kathleen Wynne’s promise to open its roads for autonomous car testing, while the mayor of Saskatoon last week called for infrastructure tailored for self-driving vehicles.

Read: What’s it really like in the driver’s seat of a driverless car?

If you go by the timelines provided by believers, the pols are playing it smart. Most major carmakers have self-driving technology in development. Tesla’s latest models already boast a limited autopilot feature, and Google hopes to have an autonomous vehicle (AV) ready for market within four years.

But do consumers share that enthusiasm? What will it take to get North Americans—steeped in a century’s worth of culture equating the car with independence and self-realization—to give up the wheel?

These are big questions with big money riding on them (this I learned during a visit last summer to the Mountain View, Calif., idea factory where Google is developing and testing its AV technology). Impressive as self-driving prototypes are, it’s clear the engineers are proceeding on big assumptions about what the consumers will want, or accept.

Read: An iPhone hacker is building a driverless car in his garage

So it was gratifying to see the first in-depth data on how Canadians feel about this idea, produced with little fanfare last week by GfK, a global consumer marketing research firm.

Canadian respondents, it turns out, are not exactly thrilled by the idea of the driverless car. More attractive to them is the idea of human-driven vehicles featuring automation that enhances safety, such as self-braking and automatic steering in emergencies, or automatic calling to emergency services in the event of an accident. Cars equipped with all of these features appealed to 42 percent of respondents, while AVs appealed to just 26 percent.

Read: The cost of Uber and autonomy

The surveyors gave respondents a list of 18 emotions to choose from to describe the notion of riding in autonomous cars, and the idea triggered as much alarm as reassurance: more than one in four chose “anxious,” while 29 percent said it would make them feel “powerless.” That was slightly more than picked “relaxed” or “free” (respondents were allowed to choose more than one).

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