Driverless Cars, Drones, and Robots: Entering a New Technological Era

Self-driving cars! Space tourism! Robots! Not so long ago, this was the stuff of science fiction. Now we stand at the edge of their everyday reality. We are living in an era that explores these possibilities and more. In the past year Google has started the production and testing of driverless cars. Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace are developing spaceships for suborbital tourism. And in many aspects of our lives, robots are already here. Robots have transformed manufacturing. Even in low wage countries like China, the New York Times reports that automation has replaced 16 million factory jobs–this represents 15% of China’s total manufacturing employment.

Robots are now moving from manufacturing to services. Many homes already have a Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. But greater robot sophistication is already coming becoming readily available. Guests at the Henn’na Hotel in Japan are checked in by a robotic dinosaur, bags are checked and transported via robot, and there’s even a robot concierge. And if you find yourself in need of a phone, at SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan you will be greeted by a human shaped robot, Pepper, who is capable of recognizing and responding to human emotion.

While robots haven’t reached Jetsons-level robot ubiquity in our everyday lives, we no longer believe it to be pure fantasy either. In fact, most of us desire robots to enhance the quality of our lives. So as part of Rockbridge’s annual National Technology Readiness Survey conducted with Professor A. Parasuraman, we tested the desirability of new robotic technologies.


The big winner was home assistance. Not surprisingly, we want someone else to do the vacuuming, scrubbing floors, and cleaning bathrooms.
And there is good news for, which has announced plans to deliver packages using drones. Half of U.S. consumers are receptive to the idea. But while they are fine with drone based package delivery, they are much less receptive to automated taxi rides. Two thirds of respondents believed this to be the least desirable use of robotic technology. And buying or leasing a driverless vehicle didn’t fare much better. Over sixty percent of consumers were not receptive to the idea. Perhaps American’s love affair with their cars won’t be easily upended by automation—or perhaps the benefits of the technology are not easy for people to imagine without experiencing it. But it is clear that the time will soon be here to determine if this is the wave of the future, or simply a niche option for some customers.

Advances in robotics offer us the potential of easier, better lives. But it is not without perceived risks. While only a fifth (23%) of consumers feel there is a possibility robots could cause them harm, over half of respondents (59%) believe that we could become dependent on them. If our adoption of smartphone technology is any bellwether, the fear of dependence probably reflects some level of reality—still, most of us could not imagine a world without them.

[1] For this study, robots are defined as technology that can perform physical tasks (e.g., driving, housework, serving in a restaurant), operate autonomously without needing instruction, and are directed by computers without help from people.


About the Study: The National Technology Readiness Survey is conducted by Rockbridge Associates, Inc. and has tracked technology and e-commerce trends since 1999.  The most recent wave is based on an online survey wave of 933 U.S. adults sampled at random from a consumer research panel. The survey was conducted in September 2015, and results are weighted to match census characteristics.

Written by: Alonso Espino, Research Manager and Charles Colby, Chief Methodologist