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9 Mar 20

Why the ‘double leap’ to shared AVs is so hard

Shared, autonomous mobility has significant hurdle yet to overcome: human adoption. A new study, ‘Being Driven’, explains more. “We’re asking people to make a ‘double leap’. That’s difficult,” says Lukas Neckermann (pictured), co-author of the study, which also points to a better way forward. 

Neckermann is a passionate evangelist for autonomous-vehicle technology. But the founder of Neckermann Strategic Advisors, a mobility-focused consultancy, sensed that there was something ‘off’ about the optimist conviction that it’s just a matter of time before we’ll all be zipping along in autonomous, shared electric vehicles (EVs). 

Users needed
Hence ‘Being Driven’. Co-authored with Frederic John, it’s a quantitative and qualitative study on the adoption and ownership of autonomous vehicles (AVs). The study is centred on the attitudes of the prospective users of AV technology. “Yes, AV technology needs further advances in technology, regulation and infrastructure. But those are all worthless without users,” Neckermann points out. 

Indeed, social acceptance is the bigger hurdle to AV adoption. Two examples. “Number one. Elevators are, essentially, autonomous vehicles. Initially, people were so suspicious of this innovation that we needed a transit phase in which each elevator had a human operator. Number two. An aircraft operates in autopilot mode 95% of the time, yet there are still two people in the cockpit. Clearly, people still feel quite a lot of reassurance from having pilots onboard. Our research in autonomous ground transport suggests a similar desire.”

Two leaps
It’s that resistance to embrace automation that we need to understand better, Neckermann argues; especially since we’re asking people to make not one, but two leaps of faith: “Those of us who work in the field of mobility have always assumed that the vehicle of the future would be both shared and autonomous, and we never properly distinguished between those two things. One of the surprising results of our study is that, from a user perspective, these are in fact two distinct steps. And that since humans are really quite change-averse, we need to take one step at a time.”

‘Being Driven’ finds that, even though drivers remain attached to the idea of a personal car, the concept of shared mobility is the easier of the two to introduce, especially in urban settings. In rural areas, the reverse may be true. 

“Even though there are already pilot programmes taking place with AVs, it will take at least ten years before autonomous mobility becomes a daily part of society,” says Neckermann. And what does ‘part of society’ mean, exactly? “It means increasing the social acceptance of shared-autonomous mobility from, say, 5% today to a mass-adoption rate of over 50%.”

Communications strategy
Such a jump in societal approval will require a much better communications strategy than has been the case until now, Neckermann finds. 

“At present, communication about AV is not aligned. Take the recent findings about the crash with a Tesla on Autopilot. First of all, the name is wrong: Tesla’s Autopilot is not the same as autonomous driving. It is ADAS technology. And secondly, the NTSB (the official US agency investigating the crash, Ed.) found that the infrastructure was defective, the driver’s company had no relevant policy on using Tesla’s ADAS technology, and the driver was playing a game on his phone at the time of the crash. So, a classic case of distracted driving. Yet the accident was blamed on… autonomous driving!” 

In the US, the autonomous-driving industry has an industry body to defend its interests and dispel faulty notions about what the technology can and can’t do. A similar body in Europe has been lacking, until now (see separate article here). It can play a role in the vital communication work that needs to be done to on-board drivers with the innovations to come: first shared, then autonomous, eventually both together. 

No Monetisation Plan
The AV industry, driven by an engineering mindset, is still struggling with the business model around robot vehicles. Safety benefits are clear, but these are incorporated over time and via insurance. And while the technology might bring a boost to profitability in ridehailing, there is still the operational issue of utilisation rate – which has made many carsharing and ridehailing operators back out of cities before. The Mobility Revolution will only be a success if we incorporate the needs of the user, as well as the city in an overall – and perhaps city-specific – execution plan, the study argues. 

Five advantages
Here’s a quick primer on five advantages that shared-autonomous mobility can bring:

  • Utilisation rates are not driver-specific. Autonomous vehicles will be able to drive themselves to the next user, but are not bound to roam in underutilised times. This means less vehicles on the streets outside the peaks, and ultimately less congestion.”
  • Safety will improve further. Today’s ADAS systems have already managed to reduce the number of front-rear-end collisions by up to 30%. Higher levels of autonomy will get us closer to ‘Vision Zero’, which today still remains somewhat elusive.”
  • “Customised, dedicated, and much more variable form factors. AVs are designed from scratch, and are therefore more likely to be more electrified than current models. And their form can be adapted to various use cases. The traditional car today seats four, five people. AVs will be designed for two to 80 people, and any number in between.”
  • Efficiency. For example, in logistics, which has notoriously tight margins. The increased safety and utilisation will benefit these players and their customers – and AVs will be better able to deliver to previously unreachable destinations.”
  • “Finally, AVs will result in greater connectivity and inclusivity, not just by making more locations easier to reach, but also by making certain categories of people more mobile – for example the visually or physically impaired.”

For more on the study ‘Being Driven’, click here.

Authored by: Frank Jacobs