Automakers are facing a delima.
New automated driving technology heralds a big change in the way drivers relate to their cars - few features threaten the traditional promise of the automobile - freedom, independence, control of the road - like a computer that can drive far safer and has no qualms about taking the wheel.
That has put automakers in an awkward spot to reach car buyers who are drawn to the idea of driving with fewer dangers and drudgeries but are still leery of self-driving technology.
To win them over, carmakers increasingly are selling the illusion of control while, in practice, taking more and more away. Cars and trucks with driver-assisting technology, a recent Boston Consulting Group report predicts, will hit the roads in "large numbers" by 2017 and at increasingly affordable prices.
Loaded with cameras, sensors and computing power, the cars have, in tests, performed sharper and more consistently than human drivers without fear of drowsiness, drunkenness or distraction.
"When polls ask about driverless cars, people are nervous, they're fearful," said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with AutoTrader. "But when you ask them about all these individual technologies - lane assist, helped parking - they say, yeah, we want all those." Industry officials acknowledge that self-driving cars may never be universally accepted by drivers, especially those who value being in control of their car.
But engineers have made efforts to make the driverless tech act more familiar and human. Where the cars once made their decisions silently, they have begun to sound out their thinking in ways that drivers can understand. Cars will now explain their sudden slowing by saying, for instance, "Crosswalk ahead," and dashboard screens will show directions and obstacles such as construction or broken-down vehicles. But they are also designed not to be overly obtrusive.
Ultimately, car companies and their engineers hope the benefits of driverless technology, which offers a relief from the annoyances of highway commutes and heavy traffic, will persuade buyers to let go of the wheel.
"Today, when you sit in a car, it doesn't feel like freedom. You feel frustrated. What you'd rather do, you can't do, because you're stuck in a traffic jam," said Erik Coelingh, a Volvo senior technical leader in Sweden. "I don't know if it's old-fashioned, but we still think it's a lot of fun to drive a car. For many customers that is really important. We don't want to take that away."
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