Where’s the land of opportunity for self-driving cars?

Our new Infographic shows that the countries testing self-driving cars aren’t the countries with most appetite for them

January 18, 2017

Self-driving Cars

Almost a quarter of professionals worldwide would consider buying a self-driving car when they become available. That represents a sizeable, and potentially lucrative, market for self-driving car manufacturers to play in. There’s just one problem. As our new Infographic shows, the countries with by far the most enthusiasm are not the countries where self-driving cars are currently being designed and tested. In fact, the markets where autonomous vehicles are closest to entering the mainstream are by far the least interested in them.

Nearly half of Indian professionals (47%) and only slightly fewer of those in the UAE (44%) say they would get behind the wheel of a self-driving car given the chance. In third place in the enthusiasm rankings comes Brazil – on 37%. However, in none of these countries has any company tested a self-driving car so far.

Look at the countries where self-driving cars are already rolling on public roads, and attitudes are very different. In the UK, where driverless cars took to the streets for the first time in October, only 13% say they would be open to travelling in one – the lowest of all countries in our analysis. The USA, where vehicles from Uber, Tesla and Google regularly travel on roads in California, is only just ahead – on 16%.

The results throw up some intriguing theories about what really drives enthusiasm for self-driving cars – and what potentially holds it back.

As self-driving becomes a reality, the issues come into focus
The most obvious explanation has to do with price and availability. As self-driving cars move closer to the mainstream, potential customers start to focus more on the practicalities of owning one – including how much they cost, and how long you have to wait before one becomes available. A Tesla with full self-driving capabilities costs at least £70,000 – and if you ordered one now you’d have to wait four months for it to arrive.

The other question that the most likely self-driving car customers start to focus on is how safe they really are – and the last year has brought a few headlines that might give them cause for concern. The first fatal crash involving a self-driving Tesla took place in June last year. In December, it turned out that Uber self-driving cars were prone to driving across bike lanes. These were well-publicised stories that may have led some to question whether self-driving technology is really up to the job.

The answer to that question comes down to whether a self-driving car will make consistently better decisions than a human driver. The most obvious explanation for why India, the UAE and Brazil are so enthusiastic about autonomous vehicles is that professionals in those countries are likely to answer that question differently.

Where self-driving cars fear to tread
What do these three countries have in common? They are officially home to some of the most difficult and dangerous roads on the planet. The UK’s foreign travel advice website warns strongly against driving in all three of them. India’s roads are famously anarchic, with little respect for the rules. Brazil’s are famously congested, with standards of driving very unreliable – and the quality of the roads themselves often very poor. The UAE is less famous as a driving challenge – but actually has one of the highest death rates from traffic accidents in the world.

Professionals in all three countries recognise driving as a problem in need of a solution – and taking it out of the hands of human beings is a particularly attractive solution. The problem is that the same conditions that make self-driving cars particularly attractive in these markets also make them far less practical. At the Paris Motor Show last September, Renault-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn, who plans to launch 10 self-driving models by 2020, said none of them would be roaming the streets of India or Brazil: “You need to have driving rules which are being respected, because autonomous cars respect the rules,” he said. “You know very well that in some cities in Brazil, this is a joke. You live in Brazil, I live in Brazil, at night cars don’t stop at the red light. Nobody stops.”

In other words, self-driving cars tend to work best when other drivers can be relied on to obey the rules of the road. The challenge for auto brands will be that drivers in such countries see far less obvious need for them. The task of developing self-driving technology may be quite advanced - but the task of marketing it could just be getting started.