Smart Transport

Autonomous vehicles: changing the public attitude

Any positive statement about autonomous vehicles seems to provoke an almost immediate counter factual or negative consequence.

The  evangelists  and  detractors  around  autonomous vehicles tend to characterise them  in  such  different  ways  that  it  leads  Glenn Lyons, Mott MacDonald professor of future mobility at the University of the West of England, to describe them as a ‘wicked problem’ – not a problem that is evil but one that is resistant to resolution, with incomplete contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise.

There is a subtle distinction between driverless cars – which are seen as personal transport – and autonomous vehicles in general. When it comes to lorries forming platoons and reducing fuel consumption or autonomy enabling night-time deliveries and more efficient logistics, the debate is less fierce.

Autonomous vehicles: changing the public attitude

Opposing views

On the subject of driverless cars, however, there are quite strong opposing views between those who see primarily the potential benefits and those who mainly see the disbenefits. There’s also a strong feeling that driverless cars will happen whatever the prevailing view because of the momentum of the automotive and tech industries, supported by the Government for largely economic reasons.

This mistrust of technology forging ahead ‘whether we like it or not’ is one of the core backlashes against the idea of driverless cars. Given this, an approach that focuses solely on ‘winning hearts and minds’ is maybe not the most productive way of approaching public engagement on driver-less vehicles as it assumes that the benefits are given and the path predetermined. The lack of wider public involvement in the process of shaping the framework around driverless vehicles is unhelpful. This is typified by the attitude that the public cannot imagine the paradigm shift that driverless vehicles represent so their views do not carry weight – summarised by the glib aphorism ‘if we had asked the public what they wanted in 1900 they’d probably have said a faster horse’.

Investing heavily

Car manufacturers and technology companies have been investing heavily in recent years to develop the systems needed to make driverless cars a reality. The UK Government has supported them as it recognises the advantages autonomous vehicles (AVs) may have in easing congestion as well as improving safety and mobility. And, as most believe an AV goes hand-in-hand with an EV (electric vehicle), air quality would also improve. The Government is keen for the public to experience the technology first-hand and plans trials of fully self-driving vehicles on UK roads by 2021, as part of its mod-ern Industrial Strategy.

Autonomous bus service

The trials will include an autonomous bus service across the Forth Bridge from Fife to Edinburgh, and self-driving taxi services in London. The perception of the inevitability of progress towards driverless vehicles – with the industry and government persuading  and pushing the public to its point of view – is not helpful. This is not like the mobile phone, which, while transformative, never faced quite the same objections.

The car has shaped society once – the likelihood of autonomous vehicles reshaping society and the very fabric of our infrastructure means that it is essential that there is wider public debate and involvement shaping the use of this technology on our roads. As Lyons puts it: “Here’s the problem as I see it. It seems with little prior soul-searching or at least consultation and debate, it was ‘decided’ that driverless cars are the future and that they should be brought into existence because they will deliver benefits.  

Armies of experts

As a result, we have government- and industry-backed armies of experts working to deliver this. It’s being called innovation. “It’s created an ‘in group’ and an ‘out group’. Those in the former (led by the evangelists) largely talk and collaborate among themselves.Those in the latter (led by the opponents) largely talk and collaborate among themselves. “Conferences and Twitter feeds for individuals in the groups create the illusion of their group being the epicentre of what matters. The other group is inferior and doesn’t get it.”

While driving is embedded in many people’s lives, relatively few are heavily invested in the act of driving or enjoy motoring and so it is likely these views may be more fluid than the research suggests. To find out how public attitudes towards autonomous vehicles can be changed read the full article, Autonomous vehicles: changing the public attitude (PDF), taken from the Smart Transport Journal.

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