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May 9, 2019 2:30 PM, EDT

Chinese Eager for Self-Driving Future; Americans Not So Sure, Survey Shows

Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News

More than half of Chinese consumers can’t wait to get out from behind the wheel and into an autonomous car.

That makes China more positive than most about driverless vehicles, with Western consumers cooler on the technology, according to a survey of more than 5,000 people by the Capgemini Research Institute. In contrast to China, respondents from the United States and the United Kingdom are the least excited about the prospect of giving up the driver’s seat, with just over a third feeling positive about automated cars.

“In China, but also in other Asian countries, we are seeing more excitement about ‘the new’ generally,” Markus Winkler, global head of automotive at consultancy Capgemini SE, said in an interview. “The acceleration in the last few years comes from the government as well.”

Chinese authorities have ambitious goals for the rollout of autonomous vehicles in the country. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued its “Internet of Vehicles Development Commission” late last year, which sets 2020 as a milestone for transitioning from pilot tests to large-scale adoption of autonomous vehicles. The number of Chinese companies with testing permits for self-driving cars has rocketed from zero to 35 in the past 18 months, according to a report from Bloomberg.

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Over half of respondents surveyed globally said that an autonomous vehicle would be their preferred mode of transport within the next five years, with most willing to pay a premium of as much as 20% for a self-driving car compared with a standard one.

Recent investments and growing awareness of the technology has helped make consumers more positive about adopting autonomous vehicles, Winkler said.

Elon Musk described autonomous-driving technology as “transformative” to Tesla Inc. in an investor call last week, while other established automotive companies such as Honda Motor Co., Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG are ramping up investment in driverless technologies. General Motors Co.’s self-driving unit this week drew $1.15 billion in fresh investment, valuing GM Cruise at $19 billion.

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Still, many consumers remain concerned about the safety of autonomous systems, with seven in 10 Americans saying they don’t want to go anywhere near driverless vehicles, according to a survey by the American Automobile Association. Last year, a test car operated by Uber Technologies Inc. killed a pedestrian in Arizona.

“With every crash that we will see, it will have a direct effect on this kind of adoption,” Winkler said. “Definitely safety should be a focus point” for carmakers.