Driverless consumers to suck-it-and-see

The autonomous driving future is an exciting prospect for many of us but perhaps not the majority. Recent studies conducted by a variety of organisations indicate that quite a few people fear complete Level 5 autonomy.

The numbers vary in the various surveys but, typically, they indicate that at least 50% of potential passengers are too scared to climb into a self-driving car. US auto advocacy group the Automobile Association of America (AAA) conducted a survey earlier this year that revealed a whopping 78% of respondents held this fear. That result matched a similar poll it conducted one year previously. It’s not that the future self-driving car occupants distrust the concept of autonomous solutions. In fact, 59% of respondents said that they would like to see self-driving features in their next automobile.

So why the disparity? Professor Neville Stanton, chair in the human factors of transport at the UK’s University of Southampton, offers a sensible theory. “In my opinion, people like to feel in control of the vehicle and prefer to drive themselves,” he said. “This might be because they have not experienced vehicle automation and find it difficult to imagine how it might work for them.”

Once they’re taken for a spin, though, the fear melts away. “We have found that those who have the experience of driving with automation tend to develop trust in it,” Stanton said. “Perhaps too much trust.” Stanton bases this on his recent research into partial autonomy. In his team’s latest study, conducted with 12 drivers in a Tesla using its autopilot mode, his team found that the driver-passengers became overly dependent on the autopilot. Several did not heed system warnings to take the wheel for the impending disengagement of the mode.

At least they were willing to climb into the vehicle. Another survey, this one conducted by research company Gartner, also found plenty of autonomous resistance – 55% of respondents said that would not even consider riding in a self-driving car, although this tally was less than in the AAA study, it still represented a majority.

Yet, similarly to AAA’s research, some of those polled did admit to the usefulness of autonomous functionality. Gartner said that they particularly welcomed the potential for improved traffic safety and better fuel economy. They were also welcomed autonomy in potential cases where they were too tired to operate the vehicle.

So the key to conquering this fear, it seems, is to get riders into a self-driving car and have it take them for a spin. Computer chip maker Intel, which strengthened its assisted/autonomous efforts with the 2017 acquisition of Mobileye, conducted its own very limited research project on this. It corralled 10 people who had never previously been in a self-driving car, some of whom were admittedly apprehensive about the experience, and drove them around in a fully kitted-out vehicle. The idea was to develop the riders’ trust in the car, and the exercise seems to have worked – according to the company, every participant saw “a huge leap” in their confidence in autonomy after the exercise.

To encourage people to take that all-important first ride, Intel is ramping up its marketing efforts to convince the world that autonomy equals safety. The company is rolling out a series of video adverts carrying that message; one features basketball star LeBron James reacting with surprise when his ride, a self-driving car of course, arrives to pick him up on a city street. A brave man on the court, James acts spooked when the vehicle rolls up to the curb. Tentatively he enters the vehicle but, while riding he becomes a convert; a happy man with a mind forever changed about autonomous driving.

“The intention of the campaign is to accelerate consumer acceptance and, most importantly, trust in the autonomous car future,” said Dan Galves, a senior vice-president at Mobileye. That’s not going to come quickly, easily, or cheaply, however. The James ad is only the beginning of what Galves characterises as a “multi-pronged trust initiative” to get people to take their first autonomous ride.According to him, no matter the degree of technical wizardry and the number of cool features in a self-driving vehicle, it comes down to broader faith in autonomy itself. “Acceptance and ultimately adoption lies far beyond simply showing off the next generation technological capabilities,” Galves said. “We believe we can overcome consumer apprehension by creating an interactive experience between car and rider that is informative, helpful, and comfortable – in a word: trustworthy.

Intel/Mobileye is smart enough to start building this trust – a word it uses frequently when discussing current attitudes towards autonomy – in the years before full autonomy takes over but we should remember that not every respondent in the mentioned surveys is frightened of a car that (at least partially) drives itself.

Southampton’s Stanton said that some of the participants in his team’s research have little or no fear at all. He said that in his most recent study: “If anything the drivers were fearless and appeared to have great confidence in the driving automation,” he revealed. “We seem to find that drivers are all too keen to engage.”


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