Pandemic Will Move Autonomous Vehicle Development Forward, J.D. Power Says

Automotive engineers and large elements of the automotive press are very excited about the idea of production vehicles that can operate autonomously. The problem is the car-buying public seems much less sold on the idea. But with our lives changing as the result of the novel coronavirus, is that destined to change? Will COVID-19 build new fires under the drive for fully autonomous vehicles?

Kristin Kolodge, executive director of driver interaction & human machine interface research for research firm J.D. Power, believes that’s possible. A trained engineer who is enthusiastic about solving the challenges that autonomous vehicles offer, she has noted what she calls a persistent gap between the automotive industry’s apparent ardor for developing automated vehicle technology and the lackluster level of interest, trust, and general acceptance by the public at large. That perception is not anecdotal either. Kolodge is the prime mover in J.D. Power’s ongoing tracking of consumer sentiment about automated vehicles. In 2019 the firm launched an initiative to measure customer attitudes about fully electric and automated vehicles.

“We’ve been running this study for roughly the last 18 months and looking at it on a quarterly basis,” she told forbes.com. “Again, we want to see how is that trend in sentiment changing over time. As the industry is working so hard on these issues and bringing them to market, we want to see if that consumer sentiment is tracking along with our industry progress.”

Perhaps to her disappointment, the simple answer is no.

“The consumer sentiment for battery electric vehicles has really been stagnant and for the self-driving vehicle — automated vehicles — consumer sentiment is really in a negative territory and hasn’t budged hardly at all,” she said. “We judge our numbers by an index, and it’s really remained for the most part unchanged over the course of the last 18 months. So we haven’t as an industry convinced the consumer population to get more excited and to have more trust and, certainly, to have that level of interest in purchasing this type of mobility solution.”

But she thinks COVID might alter that. Based on the changes we are compelled to make in light of the pandemic, autonomous vehicles could provide value in ways that weren’t as obvious before.

As she noted in a recent white paper she wrote on the subject, the idea of contactless delivery—via automated vehicles—is creating an enhanced business case for certain categories of automated transportation. This is a major shot in the arm for companies like Nuro, which received federal safety approval this February for a self-driving vehicle, purpose-built for delivering groceries.

At the same time, Kolodge acknowledges that the financial disruption that has accompanied the pandemic will likely cool many global automakers’ zeal for pursuing autonomous vehicle technology.

“I think there are certainly some pros and cons to the situation with automated vehicles that can change the equation going forward,” she said. “On the plus side, one of the solutions that we’ve been studying with consumers for automated vehicles is having an automated vehicle deliver goods or services to you. It’s really the delivery of goods and services that seems to have a great level of potential that consumers didn’t foresee previously.”

The goal of keeping exchanges of goods “contactless” speaks to the value of autonomous delivery vehicles.

“I think all of us are getting packages now and wondering every time we pick up the package from the doorstep are we bringing disease into our homes?” she said. “And that [automated non-human delivery] gives us a little bit more peace of mind about that. If it’s not coming with a human hand on it.”

From a personal transportation perspective, she believes the current health situation represents a setback for conventional manufacturers. As a result, she said, they are likely to delay investments in driverless research and development to get back to basics.

“Going forward the element is being able to get back to basics, generate the revenue, and some of the research and development money that was being attributed to autonomous vehicle development may need to be postponed,” she said. “We’ve seen some companies start to make some adjustments to their projected timetables when they would have products available, shifting that by roughly a year.”

Kolodge noted that “driverless” applications for personal transportation have been received with mixed results with no significant prospects for near- or mid-term spikes in consumer demand. She suggested the top priority for leaders in this segment of the market will be to rekindle demand for vehicles moving through the value chain prior to the pandemic.

At the same time, she believes the results of the COVID-19 experience will prompt “native” automated vehicle players such as Nuro, Zoox, and Waymo to accelerate their efforts. The current state of affairs may have created a friendlier environment for both investors and consumers interested in driverless solutions that address discrete applications, she said.

So even though Kolodge sees traditional automakers potentially hitting the pause button on some of their autonomous vehicle R&D, she believes the technologies will move forward, and the pandemic will foster that development.

“I think that this COVID experience that we’re going through, when we come out on the other side, I think we are going to find that new mobility experiences and new opportunities where new products that we didn’t dream of pre-COVID came about, and ultimately we’ll be making our lives better as we move forward,” she said.