Autonomous Vehicles – Revered Or Feared?

Consumer perception of self driving cars puts the handbrake on widespread adoption

Ever get tired of driving yourself and dream of being driven around someday? A chauffeur may be a tad expensive and ostentatious, but there may just be another solution around the corner. The automotive industry is undergoing a radical transformation, one which will see today’s driver-driven vehicles travelling alongside self-driving cars of the future.

Incumbent actors and new entrants are working to make this shift a certainty, investing billions in developing the technology. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Minister for Transport, Chris Grayling, made a statement last year claiming that we can expect to see truly autonomous vehicles (AVs) on the roads by 2021. This vague claim is open to interpretation but generally is understood as consumer purchased AVs becoming mainstream within two to three years. As a consumer behavioural scientist, I believe this is an extremely overoptimistic forecast.

Roadblocks ahead

There are three key barriers that face the mass adoption of new technology: the maturity of the technology itself, infrastructural changes required to accommodate the technology such as legislation, and consumer perceptions of it. Whilst rapid advancements are being made in the former two areas, consumer perceptions of AVs are vastly lagging behind. Currently, the public is sceptical of the concept of driverless cars, and perhaps rightly so given the gravity of what is at stake.

At Decision Technology, we carried out research to explore the extent of the issue by gauging consumer emotions around being driven by an AV in different circumstances – for example, being driven home from the pub or being driven on a motorway. Our research found that the prospect of being driven by a driverless car predominantly elicited fear and worry among the UK population, with as many as 80 per cent reporting negative emotions. This is one of the highest levels of negative emotion found in all previously researched topics, even more so than the prospect of Donald Trump winning the US Presidential election, and only narrowly beaten by the thought of North Korea being in possession of nuclear weapons (see Figure 1).

The topic also exhibited historically low levels of apathy, evoking a neutral response in only 5 per cent of our sample. It is clearly a highly emotive subject, and a barrier to the widespread roll out of AVs which will not be overcome easily or quickly. In addition, fatal accidents involving self-driving cars, such as the Uber incident in Arizona last year, will only heighten feelings of fear and play into humans’ innate confirmation bias. This will work against any progress made towards changing perceptions.

Figure 1. Researching emotive topics, Decision Technology online survey of 8,342 nationally representative UK consumers.

Fig. 1

Interestingly, our results revealed an equally negative emotional response regardless of the circumstance of travelling in a driverless vehicle, indicating that fear outweighs any potential utility at present. What’s more, if marketers of AVs think that they could harness the support of younger age groups – often early adopters of new technology – in normalising self-driving cars, they will need to rethink their strategies. Our results also found increased associations with negative emotions amongst younger people.

Stop, look, listen

Research carried out by Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has found that as many as 63 per cent of people worry about their safety when crossing the road if relying on the response of driverless vehicles. This led them to enlist the help of a team of psychologists in a series of trust trials to improve consumer confidence. JLR have got it spot on, consumer trust is an issue that needs to be tackled head on if we are to see the mass adoption of AVs, and learnings from behavioural science are key to providing a solution. One idea JLR trialled is putting ‘friendly-face eye pods’ on AVs to alert pedestrians that the vehicle has seen them and intends to react. Other car manufacturers are also tinkering with inexpensive nudges, such as Ford’s lighted bar on the outside of the car and Semcon’s ‘The Smiling Car’ concept, to signal the driving intention and thereby impart trust in fellow road users.

In the same ilk, there are other behavioural biases to consider. Here are a few examples:

  1. Loss aversion, or the tendency to react more strongly to losses (loss of control and perceived safety) than equivalent gains (lower costs, less congestion, lower emissions).
  2. Endowment effect, where people tend to overvalue things they own (driver-driven cars) and undervalue things they don’t (driverless cars) irrespective of the objective worth.
  3. Status quo bias, where people tend to prefer things to remain as they are and avoid taking action towards change.
  4. Omission Bias, the tendency to perceive harmful consequences resulting from action as more negative than those from inaction.

All of these could lead to inertia and reluctance in adopting the new technology. Consumer perceptions tend to be relatively resilient and hard to move, therefore the key to converting consumers to AVs would ultimately lie in frequent and consistent touchpoints, and experiential exposures.

On your bike, Grayling

There is no denying that research and development on autonomous technology has come a long way. Nowadays, cars can drive themselves on highways with minimal human control and the development of vehicles that can operate completely autonomously is imminent. However, the adoption by masses is still a long way off. Application of behavioural science can go some way to help shift consumer perceptions, but a complete turnaround in two to three years is unrealistic. Even a now ubiquitous and benign technology like the smartphone took seven years to penetrate 10 per cent of the population. For something as controversial as autonomous vehicles – which can be a matter of life or death – another 10 years may still be too soon.

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