British drivers still uncomfortable with autonomous vehicles

Car Technology
Autonomous car with Harman technology

More than half of British drivers are not comfortable with the idea of autonomous cars, according to new research by the London School of Economics. The findings were presented at the Goodyear Future of Mobility conference in London last week.

It is important to differentiate fully autonomous vehicles discussed here from the semi-autonomous technology found on a current Tesla, which has limited self-driving ability under very specific circumstances.

The survey results show that 55 per cent of drivers would feel uncomfortable being either in or around a self-driving car. Only 28 per cent responded that they would feel comfortable, with the balance undecided. However, the survey did find that people did at least warm to the idea as they thought about it over the course of a 20-minute interview, with slightly more favourable responses to the same questions at the end of the survey compared to the beginning.

Perhaps not surprising, given the lack of enthusiasm for self-driving cars, is that nearly 80 per cent of those surveyed thought that autonomous vehicles should retain a steering wheel to allow a human driver to override the car if necessary.

Despite the level of concern about autonomous vehicles, the survey participants tended to agree that they could potentially be safer than human-driven cars. In response to the statement “Most accidents are caused by human error, so autonomous vehicles would be safer,” 43 per cent agreed and only 19 per cent disagreed, with the rest unsure. The counter to this was a strong feeling (73 per cent) that autonomous vehicles could malfunction.

The road is a social space

A panel of experts at the conference also discussed how autonomous vehicles would interact with human drivers on our roads. Describing roads as a ‘social space’, LSE’s Chris Tennant questioned whether drivers would be more or less likely to assist an autonomous vehicle into gaps, and how an autonomous vehicle (AV) would be able to co-operate with human drivers to negotiate merging around blockages.

The report concludes: “This research identifies a number of deep-seated reservations – to the willingness to give up control, to the reliability of AV technology and to AVs’ ability to integrate in the ‘social space’ that is the road. It is necessary to understand these reservations, rather than just assume that the public needs more information if AVs are to negotiate a place for themselves on the road.

“Arguments that focus simply on promoting greater safety, lifestyle enhancements or economic efficiencies will not gain traction if AVs do not fit comfortably into the public’s picture of what the road should look like for them to drive on.”

Tech-savvy drivers more likely to accept autonomous cars

The report suggests that familiarity is likely to improve the perception of autonomous vehicles in the eyes of the general public. Very few people have ever sat in one, or even seen one of the test vehicles on the road, so there is an understandable caution in embracing this technology.

Unsurprisingly, those who were early adopters of other automotive technologies were more likely to be open to the idea of using a self-driving car. Conversely, people who are still confused by how cruise control works are less inclined to trust a car to make its own decisions.

New Holland NH Drive autonomous tractorUsing autonomous technology to plough new fields (literally)

Farmers will soon be able to purchase a fully-autonomous tractor to plough fields while the farmer does other work. Case New Holland recently showed a concept called NHDrive that can perform a wide range of tasks, day and night, without supervision. Although a tractor on a farm doesn’t have to deal with roads and other road users, it still marks a step towards autonomous vehicles being brought to market and integrating into our lives.

David Smith, chief executive of Global Futures and Foresight, explained that new technology – like autonomous driving – typically enters our lives through doing things differently, and then accelerates as it is used to do different things.

In the case of self-driving vehicles, cars will be initially able to drive us to work while we sit and read or watch a movie, but then we will start using vehicles differently. A car could be sent across town to collect your kids from school, rather than you having to physically be present. The car will take itself off to for servicing or maintenance, and be able to charge itself during downtime. People will start to make their cars useful when they are otherwise not needed, such as renting your boot space out to transport groceries while you’re at your desk.

Autonomous tech could slash number of cars on the road

Smith pointed out that a third of the urban area of Los Angeles is devoted to the automobile. Autonomous driving and other mobility services such as car sharing models have the potential to radically alter this, with enormous impact on the very makeup of LA.

Various studies have estimated that the number of cars on the road could be reduced by as much as 90% with autonomous technology. Through connectivity between different cars and with local infrastructure, car sharing and multi-tasking, each car would get to its destination more quickly and efficiently, and then go off to pick up someone else or undertake a different task.

Autonomous cars, connected to each other and the local infrastructure

Stuart Masson

Stuart is the Editor of The Car Expert, which he founded in 2011, and our new sister site The Van Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the car industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.

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