The road as a ‘social space’: Analysing the challenges of autonomous vehicle integration

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The future of mobility has become a major topic of discussion in the automotive world. Introductions including the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, ride sharing and new synergies between car manufacturers and technology players are all changing the transportation ecosystem as we know it.  

One thing in particular I think we can all agree on is that autonomous vehicles (AVs) are coming.

Every day new pilot schemes bring AVs closer to the road and into the public mind-set, and research has estimated that by 2035, 85 million autonomous-capable vehicles will be sold annually around the world.

However, the speed at which AVs arrive and the impact with which they arrive will be an unknown factor for drivers and pedestrians alike. Ultimately it is these groups’ acceptance that will be critical to their success.

At Goodyear, we recently conducted research across Europe that underscores the importance of understanding the public’s attitudes towards this new technology. Conducted in partnership with the London School of Economics, the study investigated how drivers in 11 European countries felt about the prospect of sharing the road with driverless cars.

Whilst 39% of the drivers surveyed were found to be hesitant about the introduction of autonomous vehicles - something which is common amongst new innovation breakthroughs - there were a significant number who embraced it. Nearly a third (29%) of respondents, including 28% of those from the UK, said that they would be comfortable driving alongside AVs.

Possibly even more interesting is the importance that perception seems to play in people’s attitudes towards driverless cars. In the focus groups conducted as part of the study, some participants saw AVs as no longer being a traditional car, but more as a mobility service, and as such they were then more easily able to see the potential lifestyle benefits that AVs could bring with them.

One particularly intriguing possibility suggested was that of sending an AV down to the bakery on Saturday morning to collect warm bread rolls. And with human drivers no longer in the equation, they were also able to consider the potential of AVs to weed out the bad behaviour of other road-users, as they generally expected AVs to be ‘well-behaved’ and abide by the rules of the road.

Indeed, our research showed that safety remains an important consideration in the public views on the development of AVs. 41% of survey respondents agreed that “most accidents are caused by human error, so autonomous vehicles would be safer”. A further 44% felt that AVs might even be better than human drivers, as “machines don’t have emotions”.

Yet, there are still concerns at the prospect of AVs. For many of our survey respondents these related to the willingness to give up control, to the reliability of AV technology and to AVs’ ability to integrate in the “social space” that is the road. However, when considering that 60 percent of respondents don’t feel they know enough about how AVs work, it is to be hoped that greater familiarity will address some of these concerns.

AVs are not simply another new technology. They are a technology that is gradually emerging into an intensely social space. The key to success will be a two-way exchange based on an understanding of the complex attitudes that define the public’s view of AVs and how they should fit in on the road.

After all, we shouldn’t forget that some driverless elements are already seen in our day to day lives – from driverless trams to cruise control and parking assist, these innovations have been embraced due to a widespread understanding of the technology behind them and the backing of early adopters.

As the role of the driver will steadily evolve, the partially and fully autonomous vehicles of the future will need to learn to cope with the millions of possible unknowns we face in every day driving scenarios to safely navigate their surroundings.

And as the only link to the road, tyres can further enhance the safety and maneuverability of self-driving cars. Our next-generation technologies fully embrace the demands of autonomous driving, and our Eagle-360 concept tyre, unveiled at last year’s Geneva Motor Show, is just one example. Its spherical shape allows it to move in all directions, greatly improving a vehicle’s ability to avoid sudden obstacles and reducing sliding whilst also making parking much more efficient. Combining this technology with integrated sensors which monitor driving and weather conditions in real time, the tire can provide crucial information to the car to enhance braking, handling and efficiency.

Amongst the public testing and innovation launches, the coming years will be an interesting period, not only for those in the automotive industry itself, but for the everyday driver. However, one thing is clear - the introduction of AVs will very much depend on understanding the public’s feelings of how they should fit into the social space that is the road.

We can’t wait to see what happens next. 

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