1 in 3 Americans Won't Consider Buying a Self-Driving Car

Google Cars
Tony Avelar/AP

From Tesla (TSLA) to Google (GOOGL) to BMW to Ford (F) and General Motors (GM) -- suddenly, everyone wants to invent the self-driving car. In fact, over at the University of Michigan -- not far from Motor City itself -- they announced last month they're building an entire 32-acre model city in which to test robo-buggies. But here's the real question:

Will anyone want to ride in them?

Survey Says ...

Maybe not, if a poll from Harris Interactive is any guide. After surveying 2,276 adults ages 18 and up across the U.S. late last year, Harris has concluded that driver enthusiasm for self-driving cars is decidedly lukewarm, and verging on averse.

Harris notes that, on one hand, 35 percent of the drivers it surveyed think self-driving cars are "the future of driving." Twenty-four percent agree that at the very least, they could replace designated drivers.

On the other hand, 34 percent of Americans see self-driving cars as an "unnecessary luxury" and 30 percent think the idea's just plain lazy. Thirty-two percent of drivers, who might otherwise like the idea, fear self-driving cars will simply be too expensive to consider.

Let's look at a few more statistics from the survey. Here are the percentages of drivers polled who describe self-driving cars as ...

  • Something out of "The Jetsons" cartoons -- 24%

  • A technology I'd love to have -- 22%

  • Insanely cool -- 19%

  • Confusing -- 12%

  • Something else -- 13%

As you can see, all these numbers add up to (way) more than 100. The reason is that Harris told respondents to "select all that apply." And the upshot of that is that drivers appear to have a lot of opinions on self-driving cars -- and sometimes contradictory ones.

The Age Gap

Where Harris' poll gets really interesting is when you get down into the nitty-gritty of how different age groups think about self-driving cars. For example, it's surprising to see that baby boomers (adults ages 50-68) are more likely than either millennials (ages 18-37) or members of Generation X (ages 38-49) to see self-driving cars as "the future of driving." Thirty-seven percent of boomers agree with this statement, versus 35 percent of millennials and only 33 percent of Gen-Xers.

Conversely, both millennials (34 percent) and boomers (33 percent) tend to think self-driving cars will be too expensive to be affordable. Turns out, the folks with the greatest expectation of being able to buy a self-driving car (whether or not they want one) are in Generation X. Only 27 percent of Gen-Xers see self-driving cars as unaffordable. (So maybe Forbes is right -- Generation X really is the one earning all the money now.)

As for who wants to own a self-driving car -- in principle, and if price were no object -- there's no surprise there. Early adopting millennials surge to the head of the line by this metric, with 30 percent of these kids saying they'd "love" to have a self-driving car -- while all other age groups lag in the teens.

The Upshot

Overall and across the board, though, sentiment toward self-driving cars continues to be negative. Citing concerns ranging from software "bugs" to high prices to a reluctance to become an early adopter, some 50 percent of those polled by Harris say they're not yet ready to own a self-driving car.

What's more, 33 percent of respondents surveyed -- 1 in 3 -- say they "will never consider buying or leasing a self-driving vehicle."

Would you?

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The way he sees it, as soon as Detroit stops making cars with stick shifts, the battle will be lost. At that point, sure, he'll buy a self-driving car -- but not until then. The Motley Fool recommends BMW, Ford, General Motors, Google (A and C shares) and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford, Google (A and C shares) and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Make sure you're in the driver's seat of your portfolio: Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.