Getting people on board
A car is more than just a means of transport. How do motorists really feel about automated vehicles? Will they love them like they loved their manual cars? Will commercial vehicles serve as trailblazers? Acceptance will follow if the vehicle industry can master these key challenges: facilitate understanding of the technology, create an intuitive human-machine interaction and build affordable automated vehicles.
The bond between man and car is complicated and emotional. More than just a machine, a car is about status, independence and freedom – hands-on-the-wheel, foot-to-the-floor freedom. We’ve all seen Thelma and Louise.
Autonomous driving will change that. Motorists will no longer just put their foot down and drive. They will have the opportunity to hand over control to a machine. It’s difficult to assess quite how people will respond to this cultural leap.
Understanding and enjoying driverless cars
The good news is: motorists worldwide seem principally open to automated driving. The majority of participants in the “Continental Mobility Study 2013” welcomed the technology: 79% in China, 61% in Japan, 53% in Germany, and 41% in the U.S. In the 2015 version of that same study, 54% of Americans and 68% of Germans agreed that AD could make driving more comfortable.
But the same study also showed that many find the thought of automated driving unsettling. 52% of American participants for instance do not believe that the technology will ever function reliably.
Uncertainty surrounds not only safety and data security – but also the impact of self-driving vehicles on transport jobs such as trucking or cab driving. Those professions could become obsolete. Other motorists, meanwhile, are worried that robotic cars will simply spoil the fun of driving. According to a 2015 study by Ernst & Young, 58% of German drivers share this concern.
Facilitating a better understanding of the benefits of automated cars is therefore key to their success. It is a challenge that the industry already faces today. Many Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) are part of the modern car, increasing road safety drastically. But car manufacturers and sales personnel often struggle to explain these features to customers – who in turn fail to see the advantages. One sales manager for a major car brand admitted to us: “Customers today often care more about the new flashy display of the ADAS than about the safety features."
To win over consumers for driverless cars, the industry has to take them by the hand. Finding innovative ways to communicate to customers and grant them a first-hand experience of automated features will be key – be it in real life or in virtual reality. Another decisive factor for acceptance will be leaving the driver the choice: do I want to be chauffeured or drive myself?
If the driver still gets to make the ultimate decision, he might not feel threatened by the machine.
A pioneering role could fall to commercial vehicles. In the logistics industry, automated driving is already common, for instance inside of warehouses and harbor areas. Equipping commercial vehicles with automated functions for highway driving will be the next logical step. Fleet operators could benefit in many ways. Fuel consumption and emissions will fall significantly. Transport times will become more predictable and the driver’s stress will be reduced. The success of these next steps also depends on the commercial advantage fleet owners will get by using the new vehicle capabilities.
The perfect HMI: it’s all about trust
If people are to entrust their lives to autonomous cars, they will first have to feel very comfortable using them. That means making sure a vehicle’s way of interacting with the driver – its human-machine interface (HMI) – is near-perfect.
This will not only include an operating panel that motorists will use to enter their destination, access entertainment, or switch to manual steering. It is also necessary to establish a constant dialogue without words between the vehicle and its user.
Just ask yourself: as a passenger, would you trust a driver you do not know and who ignores you during the ride? You might at least get a queasy feeling.
A self-driving car will have to keep its passengers well-informed at all times. Augmented reality will play a big part in attaining this goal. A good example is head-up displays. They supplement the exterior view of the traffic conditions in front of the vehicle with virtual information.
Communicating with the car’s environment will be crucial as well. The Mercedes F015 concept car for instance projects a zebra crossing in front of a pedestrian’s feet. This sends a clear message: “It is safe for you to cross the street.”
In order to be perfect, the HMI will have to be intuitive, designed primarily with the operator in mind. Especially the transition between automated and manual mode will have to be seamless, without giving drivers any trouble or confusing them. For instance, a light bar below the windshield using different colors could indicate to the driver whether he is in charge, the car is in charge or the driver is requested to take over.
If the user is caught up in a “battle of the buttons”, trying to understand how to operate the vehicle, he will not develop trust in the automated car. Take the globally beloved iPhone: It merely has a single button.
But achieving such an intuitive interface in the complex world of automotive electronics will involve a huge amount of cooperation throughout the supply chain.
What HMIs will ultimately look like remains to be seen. A multitude of questions must be answered. Should HMIs be designed to a universal standard to avoid confusion? Will motorists prefer to talk to their vehicles? Or use touch screens? Or give gesture commands? What will a vehicle’s emergency stop switch – or “big red button” – look like?
Finding the right answers to these and other challenges is the key to building consumer trust.
Counting the cost of autonomous driving
Finally, the bottom line: how to make autonomous driving affordable.
Driverless cars use all sorts of advanced hardware which makes them enormously expensive to build. Google’s robotic car was reported to contain about $150,000 of equipment – putting it way out of the price range of ordinary motorists. Admittedly, this is the price of a prototype that wasn’t built for series production. But it gives an idea of the scope of the challenge to win over customers.
Costs are also a concern for manufacturers, many of whom already have tight profit margins and may not welcome having to include expensive new parts in their vehicles.
Production costs are coming down. Developers are working on ways to consolidate and simplify the hardware. Cheaper alternatives to Lidar, the expensive laser-based sensor technology currently in use, are being explored.
The process will be a gradual one. A study by analysts IHS Automotive forecast that self-driving technology will add $10,000 to a car’s price tag as late as 2025, a figure that will drop to around $3,000 only in 2035.
Perhaps we need to look at the bigger picture. Morgan Stanley estimates that autonomous cars could save the United States $1.3 trillion a year by lowering fuel consumption, reducing crash costs and boosting productivity. Will the prospect of large-scale economic benefits spur national governments to create financial incentives for buyers of autonomous cars? In the end it may be a case of the gains simply outweighing the costs.
Are you open to the idea of autonomous cars or do you find the prospect of self-driving vehicles unsettling? What do you see as the biggest hurdles? Share your thoughts with the community!