Americans apparently love the idea of driverless cars. A new survey by finds that 20 percent of us — one in five, would “never take the wheel again if a self-driving, or autonomous, car were available.”

And the numbers soar if you take into account the likelihood that car owners who leave the driving to the computers will get a big break on insurance. With an 80 percent discount on their premium, a third of the 2,000 licensed drivers surveyed said they’d buy an autonomous vehicle. A big 90 percent said they’d at least consider it.

It’s worth asking these questions, because the technology is fast-evolving and self-driving cars will be available before you know it — by 2020, say some manufacturers, including Nissan. In fact, the tech is way ahead of any possible regulations or insurance guidelines.

In the latest Columbia Journalism Review, Micheline Maynard — a former Detroit bureau chief of the New York Times — says that we car reporters are missing the big story, which is the fact that people are turning off to cars and driving, in favor of public transit, bicycles, walking and, of course, autonomous vehicles.

Kids are getting their driving licenses much later, or not getting them at all. In surveys, the consensus is that driving is a hassle, and why bother when you’re always connected to your friends via cellphones and tablets? Maynard writes, “Economic and environmental concerns, along with dramatic social shifts, have caused Americans to begin to rethink their dependence on automobiles. Driving, which has been on more or less an upward slope since the end of World War II, has dropped from the peaks of last decade.”

This isn’t a new story at this point, and I don’t think the auto press completely missed it. I’ve written about the turned-off-to-driving phenomenon in this blog. We get it that high schools aren’t the center of car culture anymore. When everybody at the vintage auto show is over 60, there’s reason to wonder about the future of car collecting as a hobby.

What’s new is that the technology is evolving just as people are interested in acquiring it. Cars today can’t drive themselves, but they’re getting close to it, with systems that take over the steering and brakes when an accident appears imminent, or alerting you when you leave your lane.

High-end cars were the first to get advanced safety systems, but now it’s migrating to the whole auto fleet. The 2014 Mercedes E350 4Matic wagon I borrowed last week (above) is virtually idiot-proof. Just try to do something stupid, and the alarms start clanging.

The systems include active parking assist ($1,290) and a $2,900 safety package that includes steering assist to keep you centered in your lane as you drive, active lane keeping (alarms if you stray, and then brakes if don’t respond), a cross-traffic system (protection against rear collisions and hitting crossing bikes, pedestrians and cars), BAS Plus brake assist that looks out for foreign objects in the road, and Distronic Plus cruise control that maintains an even distance with the car ahead.

It’s not a self-driving car, but the E350 wagon is getting there. I’m generally a careful driver, but I experienced both the tug on the wheel and the active assist to keep me in the lane. You do pay for this kind of advanced technology — the bottom line on my wagon was $72,450.

A funny thing about that insurance industry poll is that it shows people trust car companies more than they do the big technology companies. Asked who they’d like to see deliver self-driving systems, Sprint and Verizon get one percent votes, Apple and Samsung 12 percent, and Google and Microsoft 15 percent. But Tesla — the upstart electric car company! — gets 18 percent, and “traditional automakers” (Honda, Ford or Toyota) a whopping 54 percent.

I guess it makes sense. You wouldn’t trust General Motors to make a cellphone, would you? Here, on video, is Nissan's latest autonomous car, which drops its driver off, then goes to find a place to park. Audi has technology like this, too:

Related on MNN:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Self-driving cars prepare for their close-up
Polls show a lot of us want to give up the steering wheel, especially if it saves on insurance. We're not there yet, but we're getting pretty darned close.