Drivers aren't quite ready to throw their hands up in surrender to autonomous motor vehicles.

Drivers largely skeptical of fully autonomous vehicles

Cruising the open road may be the quintessential symbol of independence. However, a new survey suggests that freedom enthusiasts aren't too keen on the idea of turning over the car keys to the equivalent of a robot.

A slight majority of today's road users prefer to have full control of their automobiles, according to a recent poll conducted by vehicle valuation firm Kelley Blue Book. Meanwhile, 49% indicated that the perceived safety benefits of autonomous vehicles are such that they'd relinquish control of their motor vehicles to the onboard computer system.

Over the past few years, speculation has run rampant on self-driving vehicles regarding when they'll go mainstream and how they'll impact highway safety. Some suggest these vehicles aren't understood well enough to draw any broad-based conclusions, but others – including experts at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, as well as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety – believe that fewer people will be at risk of getting into an accident because of the intuitive capabilities of state-of-the-art technology.

"The industry is talking a lot about self-driving vehicles these days, with multiple automakers and ride share companies throwing their hats in the competition to build and release the first fully autonomous vehicle to consumers," said Karl Brauer, Kelley Blue Book Senior Analyst. "Much is still unknown about fully autonomous vehicles, including how they would react in emergency situations, but the lower-level options are gaining steam."

Degrees of autonomy

Auto manufacturers and transportation officials note there are gradations of autonomous vehicles, some being fully self-driving, while others offer certain features that function independently. The Society of Automotive Engineers has a measurement scale ranging between 0 and 5 that quantifies the differences. Level 0 represent cars that are entirely driver manipulated while Level 5 operate without a motorist's interaction. KBB.com's findings suggest that today's drivers' preferences are somewhere in the middle. This is rather convenient, because most of the for-sale cars that have driverless functions are around Level 2.

"Available today in certain vehicles, these Level 2 features are automated, but the driver must be ready to take control of the vehicle," Brauer advised.

The survey also examined just how clued into the autonomous vehicle era Americans are. Luxury car owners tend to be the most aware of its existence. Approximately 60% of respondents who drove luxury models reported being aware of some vehicles being 100% self-driving, KBB.com reported. This compared to 39% for non-luxury owners.

These owners are not only more cognizant of this type of technology, but they're also more inclined to take advantage of auto-pilot. Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz respondents were the most likely to describe themselves as "very interested" in purchasing a self-driving automobile at some point, Bloomberg reported from a survey done by software company MaritzCX. Less than 10% of Jeep and Ram owners expressed the same sentiment.

Youth more comfortable with automation

Differences of opinion skew based on age as well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the younger generation tends to be more up-to-date or readily adaptable to technological advances, consumers who have yet to drive are among the most interested in autonomous vehicles. Nearly three-quarters said they felt fairly at ease about leaving the driving to computers, according to the KBB.com survey. Meanwhile, less than half – 44% – of millennials felt similarly.

Supporters of interaction-free motor vehicle technology think the degree to which the public accepts the change will depend on how safe the roads become in the aftermath.

Mark Rosekind, Administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said that because nearly 95% of collisions stem from human behaviors, the autonomous driving revolution may be the best opportunity to turn this troublesome trend around.

"We are moving forward on the safe deployment of automated technologies because of the enormous promise they hold to address the overwhelming majority of crashes and save lives," Rosekind said.