When will you be ready for a self-driving car?

In an already polarized nation, new polls show another division of opinion: whether you would buy or even consider buying a self-driving car. In a poll for Kelley Blue Book, 51 percent of drivers said cars with a driver at the controls are safer than autonomous cars. But 49 percent felt self-driving cars should be developed and deployed for the promise of greater highway safety.

In a poll earlier this year for a research group called Morning Consult, 43 percent of respondents said self-driving cars aren’t safe, 32 percent that they are safe and the balance didn’t know. Acceptance varies considerably among age groups.

U.S. companies are far from waiting for unanimous opinion. Ride-hailing giant Uber is running a pilot test in Pittsburgh using autonomous cars to carry passengers. And Google’s (GOOG) self-driving cars already have logged more than 2 million miles in the four states where their testing is permitted. 

Ford (F) CEO Mark Fields has said his company plans to make a self-driving car by 2021 that will go so far as to eliminate brakes and a steering wheel for backup human control.

Some observers believe that’s too optimistic. Such so-called Level 5 autonomous cars are likely at least a decade away, predicted Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Slightly less advanced models that retain some driver controls will be easier for the public to accept, Lund believes.

Here are some further details from recent polling about  autonomous vehicles:

  • Different groups of the population show different levels of acceptance. Among respondents 18 to 29, 45 percent said autonomous vehicles are safe. But in the oldest group polled, 55- to 64-year-olds, only 23 percent felt confident of that safety. Gender also mattered. Among men, 44 percent believed these cars were safe, compared to just 21 percent of women.
  • A majority concedes that self-driving eventually will improve safety. A large majority, 63 percent, of respondents believe roads would be safer if autonomous vehicles were standard. Even with that conviction, 51 percent still prefers cars with driver controls.
  • Experience with the technology increases acceptance. Drivers who had experience with early tech components of autonomous cars now available on new cars were more accepting of the self-driving concept. Those features include automatic braking to avoid a collision with the vehicle ahead, lane-departure warning and adaptive cruise control, which adjusts the distance your car keeps from the car ahead.

Manufacturers need to expand the opportunity for consumers to gain this familiarity, said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer. He suggested that could come with an extended test drive, a short-term lease or daily rental.                                                                                                                                             

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.