Self-driving cars are a nonstarter for many teens

Teenagers spend lots of time on smartphones, laptops and video games. But when it comes to an autonomous car that does the driving for you, it's a nonstarter for more than half of them.

Queried this year about driving -- or not driving -- a car that goes on its own once it has been programmed, 56 percent had minimal interest in doing so, according to a survey by State Farm, the nation's largest auto insurer, and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). When asked about "feeling safe" in a driverless car, more than 61 percent said they wouldn't likely own or drive one in the future.

The survey was conducted online this past September and October, and 764 teens responded. However, they were all members of SADD and therefore perhaps less likely to engage in risky behavior than the average adolescent. SADD is a national youth health and safety organization that focuses on issues such as traffic safety and substance abuse.

"I agree with those that say they would not feel safe in a car with no steering wheel or brake pedal," said 19-year-old Emma Gaster of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. "People like to be in control. Removing the human aspect of response to a dangerous situation would cause many people to be hesitant."

The results surprised State Farm's researchers because a similar broad-based public survey conducted only two years ago found that between 30 percent and 40 percent of respondents would "definitely consider riding in a vehicle with autonomous self-driving capabilities," and the amount and types of driverless cars have grown more expansive since that time. 

Teens are considered to be more tech-savvy and willing to take more chances than older generations. But, unfortunately, they're also more likely to have accidents.

One fact stood out for those worried about teenage driving behavior: "Nearly 20 percent believe their generation will be less likely to own a car than people are today," said State Farm.

That's particularly true for those living in cities or suburban areas. "Ride-sharing companies like Lyft and Uber have dramatically changed the way that teens who live in my part of the state get around," said Dylan Mullins, 19, of Marlboro, New Jersey. "And the need to own things in general has decreased in recent years. It's much easier to get things on demand -- whether it's a movie or a car -- than to buy them outright."

Teens are also acutely aware that the cost of automating a car, such as installing the external sensors that would keep it from getting into accidents, could be prohibitive given the budget of those just starting out with college loans and limited disposable income. "There's a common feeling that it would be too expensive for the average person to own, given how advanced the technology must be," said Mullins.

But teens seem to agree that car technology will change, whether bought, rented or even avoided. "The cars of today will be a thing of the past," the survey noted, "like a landline telephone."

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.