The Chinese are much more positive about autonomous vehicles than Americans

Key Points
  • People in China, India and Brazil are considerably more positive about autonomous cars than people in the United States and parts of Europe.
  • The results suggest the future of autonomous vehicle adoption will be a nuanced picture.
The Nio EP9 self-driving concept electric vehicle (EV) is displayed during the media day of 17th Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition on April 19, 2017 in Shanghai, China.
VCG | Getty Images

The Chinese are much more positive about autonomous vehicles than Americans, according to a new report from Ford.

In fact, citizens of India and Brazil — two other large, developing countries — also appear to be considerably more hopeful about a future with self-driving cars than those from more developed nations, such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany.

And what this means is that if and when autonomous vehicles become fit for widespread adoption, different regions or countries may approach them differently.

"What this tells us is that autonomous vehicles are not going to be a universal solution, they are only one option" said SherylConnelly, who is manager of global consumer trends and futuring at Ford.

Instead, the picture is nuanced and is driven by context.

Ford asked 10,000 people in nine different regions around the world whether or not they agreed with the statement "I am hopeful about the future of autonomous vehicles." The survey was included in Ford's 2018 Trends Report, which examines attitudes around the world on a wide variety of topics, many of which are not directly related to transportation.

The Chinese were most positive about an autonomous future — 93 percent of respondents in that country agreed with the statement. India was close behind, with 81 percent agreeing. Three-quarters of Brazilians surveyed agreed.

And 71 percent of respondents in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which were combined in the survey, said they agreed.

Compare that with the considerably smaller numbers seen in developed countries. Just 52 percent of Australian respondents agreed. Half of the respondents in both the United States and Canada agreed. Only 45 percent of respondents from the United Kingdom said they are hopeful about an autonomous future, as did just 44 percent of Germans.

The table below breaks down how much respondents from different countries agree with the statement "I am hopeful about the future of autonomous vehicles."

Country/regionPercentage of adults who agree
Middle East (Saudi Arabia and UAE)71
U.S. 50
Canada 50

A key factor that distinguished the most enthusiastic countries was how densely populated their cities are, Connelly said.

For example, the largest city in the United States by population is New York City, which is home to just over 8 million people. Even including some of the surrounding area, such as parts of New Jersey, New York barely qualifies for the list of "megacities," those with populations greater than 10 million people.

By contrast, there are 23 million in Beijing's city center, said Connelly. A single commute in the Chinese capital can last five hours.

Massive, crowded cities are found in India and Brazil, as well. In fact, the United Nations says most of the world's megacities are located in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Out of 31 megacities identified by the U.N. in 2016, only New York and Los Angeles made the cut for U.S. cities. The only European cities were Paris and London.

In contrast, China alone is home to six megacities, and India claims five. In Brazil, both Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were included in the list.

There are certainly traffic problems in cities in Europe and America, but people may not have the same sense of urgency. Countries such as the U.S. also have their own strong automotive heritages and car cultures that might be resistant to some types of change, Connelly said.

Whether or not autonomous cars will alleviate congestion has been a matter of debate. One argument holds self-driving cars will reduce traffic caused by accidents, for example. Autonomous cars may also make traffic move more fluidly because they will use advanced sensors and vehicle-to-vehicle communication to behave more efficiently than human drivers.

But self-driving cars could also increase congestion, by, for example, filling the streets with empty autonomous vehicles on their way to pick up passengers.

But truly autonomous vehicles would free up passengers from the task of driving, allowing them to work, entertain themselves or talk with others.

Autonomy is one of the technologies Ford has been working on, as it tries to match a wider industry shift from solely making cars to offering a diverse set of new mobility technologies and businesses. For example, Ford has also made investments in other transportation businesses, such as commuters, bicycle rentals, car sharing and ride sharing.

But the company has to battle a perception among investors that it is behind competitors on these sorts of efforts. Ford's stock has lagged behind those of some rivals — shares are up just 3.5 percent year to date, compared with a roughly 21 percent rise in shares of General Motors and a 46 percent increase in shares of upstart Tesla.