One Thing Baby Boomers and Millennials Agree On: Self-Driving Cars

People are still split on whether driverless vehicles are the future, but differing attitudes have little to do with age.

Lexus SUVs equipped with Google self-driving sensors line up in Mountain View, California, in 2015.  (Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters)

Attitudes toward new technologies often fall along generational lines. That is, generally, younger people tend to outnumber older people on the front end of a technological shift.

This usually plays out along a bell curve, as Everett Rogers explained in his classic book, Diffusion of Innovations. Which means we might expect more Millennials among the early adopters and more Baby Boomers among the laggards.

Not always, though.

Innovation Adoption Lifecycle

When you look at attitudes toward driverless cars, so far, there doesn’t seem to be a clear generational divide—at least not with the limited data that’s out there. The public overall is split on whether they’d like to use a driverless car. In a study last year, Pew reported 48 percent of everyone surveyed said they wanted to ride in one, while 50 percent did not. But Pew didn’t share what it found about attitudes toward driverless cars among various age groups.

“We didn’t highlight the age findings because there weren’t any real generational differences to speak of,” said Aaron Smith, the associate director of research at Pew. Here's what Pew found at the time:

Would want to ride in a driverless car, by age:
18 to 29: 52 percent
30 to 49: 50 percent
50 to 64: 48 percent
65 and older: 45 percent

Keep in mind, this data is a little old. The survey was conducted in February 2014, back when Google's fleet of self-driving cars had logged about 700,000 miles of autonomous-driving time. (In June of this year, Google crossed the 1-million-mile mark.) “Now people have had a chance to see them in action on 60 Minutes segments and the like,” Smith said. “Although we’ve also had a big remote car-hacking scandal in the meantime, which might put pressure in the opposing direction.”

Either way, the fact that attitudes toward self-driving cars appear to be so steady across several generations suggests how transformative the shift to driverless cars could be. Not everyone wants a driverless car now—and no one can get one yet—but among those who are open to them, every age group is similarly engaged.

This isn’t actually surprising. Whereas older demographics are sometimes reluctant to upend established habits with new technologies (see: print newspapers), driverless cars promise real value to these age groups in particular. “Older adults, especially those with limited mobility or difficulty driving on their own, are one of the classic use-cases for driverless cars,” Smith told me.

This is especially interesting when you consider that younger people, Pew found, are generally more interested in travel-related technologies than older demographics.

The Percent of People, by Age Group, Who Want to Own the Following Inventions

Pew Research Center

When it comes to driverless cars, though, differences in attitude are more pronounced based on factors not related to age. College graduates, for example, are particularly interested in driverless cars compared with those who have less education: 59 percent of college graduates said they would like to use a driverless car compared with 38 percent of those with a high-school diploma or less.

Where a person lives matters, too. More people who lived in cities (52 percent) and suburbs (51 percent) said they wanted to try driverless cars than those who live in rural areas (36 precent).

There’s also reason to believe that interest in self-driving cars is going up across the board. In 2013, a poll by the market-research group, ORC International, found just 18 percent of respondents said they’d buy a driverless car. Pew’s data, from 2014, shows about half of those surveyed wanted to try one. And a separate survey earlier this year, by the Harris Poll, reported a wide range of positive reaction to the technology, with more than one-third of respondents calling self-driving vehicles “the future of driving.” (Harris, however, found more pronounced differences in attitude toward driverless cars based on age than Pew did. Of the one-third of respondents who said they’d never consider buying a self-driving car, half were 69 or older; one-quarter were under 37 years old.)

But the reality is, a person’s age will have little to do with how self-driving cars can become mainstream. Once driverless cars are actually available for sale, the early adopters will be the people who can afford to buy them.