NEMPA/MIT Study: Consumers Want Some Autonomous Features, Want Training To Learn To Use Them

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As part of the New England Motor Press Association and the MIT AgeLab’s annual NEMPA/MIT Technology Conference, MIT Research Scientist Bryan Reimer revealed the results of a consumer survey that showed consumers are interested in some autonomous technologies, but they want to be taught how to use it in very different ways than they’re taught now.

Technology is outpacing our ability to understand how these technologies are put to use. According to a study by MIT’s Bryan Reimer in 2014, these types of vehicle automation can reduce accident severity and increase mobility, which are core needs of an aging (and driving) population.


The issue at hand is whether or not consumers have any grasp of the complexity involved with these types of vehicle automation, and how they can be deployed to support a range of mobility issues.

Not understanding the technology and how it works isn’t something new in the automotive industry. When anti-lock brakes filtered down from exclusive luxury brands into more common automobiles, consumers were confused by the technology doing exactly what it was designed to do.

“With standard brakes,” writes Norman Klein, the author of The Senior Driver’s Survival Guide, “experienced drivers were accustomed to pumping the brake gingerly on slippery roads, since a heavy foot would cause the car to spin out of control.” However, despite decades of prevalence in the marketplace, many consumers are still confused when they feel the anti-lock brake system cycling to avoid locking the brakes. “Many drivers do not know how to use anti-lock brakes,” Klein says, “and the manuals that come with their car offer little help.”

The NEMPA/MIT survey asked consumers about the technology currently in their cars, about their interest in buying cars equipped with various levels of autonomous technology, and how they would prefer to learn about how these technologies work. In three weeks, over 3,000 consumers completed the survey, and 2,954 met the criteria set out by the survey (current legal drivers over 16, who owned cars produced after 1980). The sample broke down as 59% male and 40% female; the remaining 1% of individuals selected an “other or choose not to answer” option.

Older drivers made up the largest sample, with 52% of respondents over the age of 55. Half of participants owned a car with a production year later than 2010, signifying at least some familiarity with modern automotive technology.

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For the most part, the consumers surveyed were relatively happy with the technology already in their cars. Well over half reported positive associations with the technology: 28% of participants are very happy with the technology, and an additional 42% like most of the features.

When asked about levels of autonomy, consumers broke out into very distinct age groups. The highest percentages of consumers surveyed — regardless of age — responded that they’re interested in autonomous technologies that help the driver, meaning technologies that may apply full braking force when a car stops short, or guides the driver slightly if they weave out of a lane. Most significantly, more than half of consumers in the 65 to 74 and 75-plus age groups indicated that they would be interested in owning cars with this type of technology.

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Younger drivers, though, had almost the opposite reaction; drivers in the 25 to 34 year old bracket were the age group most interested in full autonomy. Drivers in the 65 to 74 and 75-plus brackets indicated less than half that level of interest, which is significant because at least part of the reason for developing the technology is to extend mobility to drivers in the later stages of life. “The survey results suggest there may be some hesitation around one’s comfort with full automation among the older adult population who could benefit it the most,” the paper summarized.

All technologies require a learning curve, but how do manufacturers to most effectively teach drivers to use them? When asked how they’re learning to use the technologies in their car right now, the answers are dramatic:

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Sixty-five percent of respondents suggested that they’re learning by opening the vehicle manual, however as Bryan Reimer noted in his remarks at the NEMPA/MIT Technology Conference, when the MIT AgeLab put drivers in a car to learn adaptive cruise control technologies and left the manual on the passenger’s seat, not one of the sampled drivers bothered to look in the manual that was sitting right next to them.

Trial and error is the way fifty-nine percent of respondents suggested they’re learning how to use technologies that include advanced collision avoidance equipment. Just 24 percent say that they were instructed how to use the technology at a dealership during delivery, and just 17 percent say that they were shown how it works in the sales process. Websites and online videos are just as meagerly represented as current methods for learning.

Yet when asked how they’d like to be taught, the answer is “every way.” Thirty-five percent say they want to be taught during the new car delivery process. Another 38 percent say that online tools would be helpful. The biggest surprise? While zero percent suggested that their car taught them how to use technologies today, 39 percent say that’s how they’d like to learn in the future.

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Similar age-related differences become evident in these questions, as well. At the upper end of the age spectrum, consumers want dealers to demonstrate the technologies, either during delivery or during the sales process. The physical owner’s manual is also significantly important to consumers as their age increases. Younger consumers say that they’re more interested in learning via websites or online videos, through trial and error, or via embedded teaching tools inside the car.


We all may have hated Clippy, the learning tool embedded within Microsoft Word until 2007, but the results of the NEMPA/MIT survey suggest that we might be looking for exactly a tool like that to understand how advanced technologies work in our cars.

DOWNLOAD THE WHITE PAPER: Autonomous Vehicles, Trust, and Driving Alternatives: A survey of consumer preferences,

“Autonomous Vehicles, Trust, and Driving Alternatives: A survey of consumer preferences,” was authored by MIT’s Hillary Abraham, Chaiwoo Lee, Samantha Brady, Bruce Mehler, Bryan Reimer and Joseph F. Coughlin, along with editor and New England Motor Press Association President Craig Fitzgerald.


Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

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