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Autonomous Cars Features Editor's Picks

Is it right for robots to be using our roads?

Dr Chris Carter lead the research for a new study from the London School of Economics and Goodyear which surveyed 12,000 drivers to understand their attitudes towards the appearance of autonomous vehicles on public roads, and their likelihood of using one themselves. We talked to Chris to find out more.

The overall results suggest there’s some way to go before even the majority of people are happy with the concept. Forty-one per cent of the drivers surveyed described themselves as uncomfortable about driving alongside autonomous vehicles; 44 per cent said they would be uncomfortable using one. ‘Don’t knows’ and ‘Neutrals’ accounted for around another further 30 per cent. Just 29 per cent of drivers said they were comfortable with the idea of autonomous cars on the roads, and only 26 per cent with the idea of driving one themselves.

Chris is quick to qualify this finding, however. “People haven’t really experienced autonomous cars. The testing is mostly taking place in private facilities. We were asking people to imagine how they’d feel about something they haven’t seen or experienced.” It’s quite a stretch.

That said, he does not discount the findings in any way, noting that people typically make their judgements on moral grounds rather than through an assessment of the technology: “Is it right for robots to be using our roads?”.

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Streets are social

The discomfort that many drivers feel, says Chris, is linked to an understanding that our roads are a social place. Drivers tip a nod to someone they’re allowing into the lane; wave on someone else; exchange a glance with the driver beside them to assess their intentions.

“Just the way drivers position their cars on the road can be intended as a message to other drivers,” Chris tells us. “A driver might signal Look, I really need to get out of here by nosing their car forward at a junction.”

In other situations, there is a commonly understood etiquette that isn’t set down in any Highway Code. “If a delivery van is blocking the lane, then if the other lane looks clear, drivers will swerve around it.” When drivers in that opposing lane see such a van, they are able to automatically read the situation and expect that someone might come around and so exercise extra caution. “If people don’t read these situations correctly, then we tend to get very annoyed with them,” says Chris.

When it comes to autonomous cars, there’s an expectation that they won’t be able to speak or understand ‘human driver’. There was a correlation in the survey results between the extent to which people regard the road as a social setting and their discomfort with autonomous cars. At the opposite end of the spectrum, less social drivers, who generally pay less regard to other drivers on the road in any case, were the ones who were most at ease with driverless vehicles, and even suggested that autonomous cars could be easily bullied.

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Chris believes that some promoters of driverless cars have had an unfortunate tendency to view ‘manual’ vehicles as unfortunate obstacles to be dealt with. That the sooner ‘legacy’ vehicles disappear from our roads, the better. But he warns that such thinking will make it more difficult for autonomous vehicles to gain any acceptance in the first place. “Autonomous cars better make life significantly easier for existing road users, or they’ll have a very hard time.”

Silver machine

Fortunately for this technology, there were some very significant silver linings in the study. As people spent more time thinking about driverless cars, their attitudes changed very quickly.

There was a large, nine per cent swing towards feeling comfortable about autonomous vehicles once drivers had simply completed the questionnaire, which asked them to think about the likely impact of autonomous cars on road safety, and how such vehicles would be most likely to behave in particular scenarios.

A second reason for optimism is that Chris believes that autonomous cars offer an opportunity to redeem the driving culture of many large cities, where aggressive, selfish behaviour has become the norm on the roads.

Autonomous cars are likely to be extremely patient, gracious and law-abiding. As people witness this behaviour, it’s likely to rub off: people are much more susceptible to being influenced by others’ behaviour than they think they are, even if the “others” are machines in this case. “Eventually it might cause people’s own driving behaviour to evolve,” as one UK participant remarked. “We’ll be overwhelmed by niceness,” said another.

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