In summer 2023, The Department for Transport (DfT) and the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) published two new reports on The Great Self-Driving Exploration.
Last year, in partnership with Thinks Insight & Strategy, University College London (UCL) and Aurrigo, they held a series of large-scale public engagement events in areas of the country where there had previously been little or no engagement with self-driving vehicles.
The aim was to study public perceptions towards, and effective communication about, self-driving. We ran a story at the time on The Great Self-Driving Exploration in Taunton.
Self-driving citizen view
The first report, “A citizen view of self-driving technology in future transport systems”, largely analysed the responses from a “high exposure audience” of 177 participants, who took part in a three-week programme of “deliberative engagement”, including pre- and post-ride surveys.
Further feedback came from “medium exposure” and “low exposure” audiences, of 450 and 250 participants respectively.
In workshops, the high exposure participants were shown educational videos on various aspects of self-driving. They featured, among others, Rebecca Posner of CCAV, Camilla Fowler of Oxbotica (now Oxa), Siddartha Khastgir of WMG, Jessica Uguccioni of the Law Commission, Dr Nick Reed of Reed Mobility, Brian Matthews of Milton Keynes Council, Steve Gooding of the RAC Foundation, Tom Cohen of the University of Westminster, David Sharp of Ocado, Martin Griffiths of Stagecoach Group, Colin Robertson of Alexander Dennis, Jim Hutchinson of Fusion Processing, and Waymo – familiar names to regular Cars of the Future readers.
The participants were then asked to design an advert to describe self-driving vehicles (SDVs) to the public. As an aside, being pedants, we note a battle with software-defined vehicles for the SDV acronym. Anyway…
The report found: “Given the generally positive attitude towards SDVs [self-driving vehicles], the information campaigns and adverts designed by participants overwhelmingly focused on communicating the potential benefits of introducing SDVs rather than any of their concerns.
“Broadly speaking, to effectively improve awareness of SDVs it was seen as necessary to communicate their advantages over and above traditional human-driven vehicles.
“Using information campaigns and adverts to normalise the concept of SDVs, either as privately owned vehicles or as part of shared or public transport provision, was considered important.”
Familiarity with self-driving increased significantly among the high exposure participants, with 68% saying they knew ‘a fair amount’ by the end of the research, compared to just 11% at the outset.
In particular, these participants felt they had a better understanding of the ‘rules’ for using self-driving vehicles. However, there were still areas of potential confusion, such as what level of autonomy is currently legal on UK roads.
In a welcome repeat of the PAVE findings in America – “we like to put on demonstration events to demystify the technology and the good news is that knowledge and experience change attitudes”- participant ‘comfort’ increased during The Great Self-Driving Exploration process, both in terms of using self-driving vehicles and sharing roads with them.
As to how best to communicate with the public, the research concluded that the top five key themes are:
- Safety – both improved road safety and reassurance on self-driving vehicle safety.
- Reliability and security – especially the balancing of AI technology and human backup.
- Accessibility – promoting mobility for all.
- Shared – improved public transport and the environmental benefits of fewer private car journeys.
- Costs – being cheaper than the existing options is a powerful message.
Self-driving emotional responses
The second, more technical, report, “Understanding emotional responses to self-driving vehicles: Findings from the EEG study”, measured excitement and stress using an electrophysiological process to record participants’ brain activity. The headlines were…
On “medium to high levels of Engagement, Excitement and Interest”, that participants “have a degree of affinity with the task and tended to have more positive emotional responses to the technology.”
On “lower scores for Focus, Stress and Relaxation”, that participants “were relatively comfortable with the experience despite its novelty”.
And “as participants become more familiar with the technology the more immediate and emotional reactions, both positive or negative subside”.
Interestingly, males tended to show higher levels of ‘Excitement’ than females when on the shuttle, while the opposite was seen for the pod.
The report concluded: “These differences will have implications on both engineering and policy choices to help mitigate certain emotional states if self-driving vehicles become more widespread. The changes in emotional state observed throughout a journey also suggest the value of providing members of the public with the opportunity to trial the technology.”
Together, these two reports provide important insights into the expectations of the UK public in relation to self-driving – a valuable contribution to this fast-growing ecosystem.