Trust in urban mobility and autonomous vehicles remains low in the UK and US, but China is welcoming the technologies, according to recent research.

A study of over 10,000 consumers across five countries finds that just 15 percent of drivers considered urban mobility schemes, such as car sharing, ride-hailing, and other on-demand transport options as an alternative to their own vehicle last time they replaced it, and roughly 19 percent say they will consider them next time.

According to The Global Automotive Disruption Speedometer from OC&C strategy consultants, the barriers are partly structural, as over half of all trips take place at peak times – commuting and the school run – that are ill-suited to on-demand alternatives.

The car is also seen as an extension of personal space: 41 percent of consumers like to leave things in their vehicles, while 65 percent of respondents believe that on-demand mobility takes too long compared to being able to jump into their own cars.

Mobile youth?

Urban mobility mainly suits young, family-free city dwellers, adds the research: 42 percent of 18-29-year olds in urban areas in the US, UK, France, and Germany will consider alternatives to using or owning their own vehicles next time they replace them, but they constitute less than five percent of all drivers.

The picture is radically different in China. According to OC&C, two-thirds of Chinese consumers will consider new mobility options instead of ownership next time they replace their vehicles.

But it is an oversimplification to say that China lacks the same kind of car culture as the US or the UK: the research finds that there is significant emotional attachment to vehicles in all five of the countries surveyed. For example, 84 percent of US consumers see the car as essential to getting around, while 66 percent of Chinese consumers see having a car as an important part of growing up.

Even ‘Generation Rent’ consumers still care about owning and driving their own vehicles, says the research; they merely struggle to afford them. Among 18-29 year olds, 49 percent (Germany) to 79 percent (China) of young adults consider their own cars to be essential for getting around, with affordability being the number one barrier to their ambitions.

Auto distrust

OC&C found that autonomous cars have a particularly long way to go to earn Western consumers’ trust: roughly 66 percent of Europeans and Americans would not trust an autonomous vehicle. But again, the picture is very different in China, where 72 percent of consumers would trust one.

Autonomous cars and on-demand transport are intended to disrupt the unsustainable model of urban car ownership. However, even if it could drive itself, 76 percent (France) to 88 percent (US) of consumers still want their own exclusive car, rather than shared access to a pool of robotaxis.

This suggests that, instead of replacing private cars, autonomous technologies look set to democratise what the super-rich have today: their own private drivers. Most users want to retain exclusive access to vehicles on a bundled subscription that takes away the hassle and risk of ownership, says OC&C.

The findings broadly echo an earlier 2019 study by Capgemini of attitudes to autonomous vehicles. That found that 69 percent of Americans either actively distrust or are very cautious about driverless cars, versus 67 percent of Germans and Britons and 63 percent of French consumers.

By contrast, just 28 percent of Chinese consumers expressed the same level of caution and distrust, with 72 percent saying they would either be among the first to try the technology or would be happy to use it once driverless cars were safely on the road.

In 2018, the American Automobile Association found that trust in driverless technologies had fallen significantly in the wake of two fatal crashes involving cars that were running under software control – an autonomous Uber Volvo, which struck and killed a pedestrian in March of that year, and a Tesla whose owner died when his vehicle struck a concrete barrier while its Autopilot software was running.

Tesla was singled out for criticism at the time for naming its software Autopilot while stressing that it was a driver-assistance technology, not a self-driving application.

Uber’s safety driver was found to be at fault in the March accident in Arizona. However, preliminary enquiries by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that poor object recognition and system design had contributed to the crash, while Volvo’s own emergency braking and driver assistance systems had been disengaged by the Uber software.