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Do Americans really want self-driving cars?

Many Americans are not yet ready to give up the steering wheel, according to a new survey conducted by Kelley Blue Book. 

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In this 2015 photo, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors Inc., introduces the Model X car at the company's headquarters in Fremont, Calif.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File

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As the auto industry speeds towards autonomy, a new Kelley Blue Book survey of driver preferences could slam on the brakes, with 80 percent of respondents telling researchers that drivers should always have the option to take control of the vehicle.

The survey shows that despite popular enthusiasm surrounding autonomous vehicles, most drivers would prefer less automatic options.

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"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 Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer in a statement, adding that:

"Much is still unknown about fully autonomous vehicles, including how they would react in emergency situations, but the lower-level options are gaining steam.”

Automakers measure vehicle autonomy on a five-point scale, with five representing a fully autonomous vehicle with no option for a human to drive, and a one representing a car with only a handful of automatic features, such as emergency braking.

Researchers found that most people would prefer to travel in a “modern plus” vehicle, that is, a car with two or more functions automated that still required the presence of an attentive human driver, although Level Four vehicles that contain a steering wheel are the "sweet spot" among the more autonomous options. Fully one-third of respondents said that they would never purchase a fully autonomous vehicle with no option to drive.

Americans also think that autonomous vehicles that score a one or two on the five-point scale are safer than more fully autonomous vehicles, with 87 percent of respondents saying that Level One and Level Two vehicles increase occupant safety, compared to 47 percent of respondents who say the same of Level Five vehicles.

When it comes to questions of safety vs. autonomy, Americans were nearly evenly divided. Fifty-one percent of survey respondents said that they preferred to retain control over their vehicles, even if it made roadways less safe, while 49 percent were willing to surrender the ability to drive for greater safety.

Yet although driver preferences are currently biased toward minimally automated vehicles, the Kelley Blue Book survey reports that younger respondents revealed a greater acceptance of fully autonomous vehicles than their older counterparts, many of whom admitted that they knew little about self-driving cars.

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Young adults who are currently in middle school and early high school (Generation Z) are likely to be the generation that embraces fully autonomous vehicles most enthusiastically. Seventy-three percent of that age group, none of whom are yet old enough to drive themselves, feel comfortable with the idea of owning a vehicle in which they have no option to drive.

Perhaps this response is not surprising, given that young people are increasingly choosing to forgo earning their driver’s license, as The Christian Science Monitor reported early this year.

The rise of ride-hailing transportation – which is moving quickly to develop driverless cars – could play a role in the varying degrees of comfort different generations and populations feel as they relinquish control of the steering wheel.

The senior director of commercial insights at Kelley Blue Book, Rebecca Lindland, told The Washington Post that individuals in countries where personal automobile ownership is less common than in the United States are more likely to accept autonomous vehicles. She said:

“In the U.S., we are a driving culture. Everybody has a car …whereas in some of these other places, if you only know ridesharing, if you never own a car and you only rideshare, that’s going to be perfectly normal for you.”