Picture yourself inside an autonomous vehicle (assuming you have – like most people – never sat in one before). What would be the most important aspect to you, your first thought? For many people the answer would surely be something along the lines of "Is this safe?"
In order to bring driverless mobility on its way, people need to trust in its safety. This will happen by improving the technology through extensive testing and diminishing errors. Another, somewhat unexpected way to gain acceptance with the public, is to shift into a much lower gear – literally. Science fiction has taught us for decades that the public introduction into autonomy would be by passenger cars – fun, fast and futuristic. Instead the first contact with the concept might for many people be through self-driving shuttles.
The future is slow
Test projects all over the world involving driverless shuttles have the following things in common: the vehicles are usually built for 4–10 passengers and go at a moderate speed between 15 and 40 kmh. The interior of the vehicles has a sleek and modern design, with futuristic equipment, large windows, and most importantly, no driver. Simply said, they can seem quite boring. And this is exactly why they’re great. Public transport by default isn’t supposed to be exciting. It is supposed to be safe, dependable and trustworthy, especially when it comes to autonomous technology. Using a self-driving shuttle shouldn’t be like a ride in a theme park, but rather simple and conventional, ruling out the question of safety.
Earning the trust
This is of great importance, since accidents with autonomous vehicles have influenced the way people perceive driverless cars – turning initial excitement into scepticism. A recent US-survey shows that 58 % feel very (42 %) or rather (16 %) negative about the prospect of riding in a driverless car, 19 % are neutral to the topic and only 23 % feel rather (12 %) or very (11 %) positive about it. It seems that in the public mind, the many lives that might be saved by driverless cars in the future don’t outweigh the tragic few that have already been lost because of it. But this isn’t the whole truth. The global trust in driverless cars has actually been growing significantly between 2017 and 2018, showing a definite trend towards acceptance.
Minimising the input
The speed factor, or rather lack thereof, has given self-driving shuttles a crucial commercial advantage in this aspect. Autonomous passenger cars, which are designed to be driven at higher speeds and in far more complex environments and situations, are confronted with a myriad of traffic scenarios and weather conditions that require precise and immediate reactions. This means a huge data input and consequently a much higher volume of error possibilities. Autonomous shuttles are, at least for now, minimising the risks by driving at slower speeds and in controlled environments. Current test projects only deploy the vehicles on fixed routes and/or in closed areas such as campuses, airports or resorts. Even in such cases, it is possible for the shuttles to experience scenarios that the system is not capable of handling, but without dire consequences. Rather, they provide the opportunity to gather precious data that helps to optimise the technology.
In the future, vehicles like these could be at the core of emerging on-demand mobility. If they are capable of moving freely on individually generated routes to pick up passengers, driverless shuttles could be a very valuable addition to the public transport mobility mix of the future, covering less frequented routes, taking on night shifts and simply closing the gap that classic public transport leaves open. Market forecasts suggest that the commercial penetration of autonomous vehicles will only experience marginal growth within the next 5 years, but are expected to rise exponentially from 2025 on. It remains to be seen how much of a part shuttles will play in this development.