Even if the technology has as yet only been tested in prototypes on test routes, autonomous driving will apparently be possible in the near future. How exactly do potential users envision such vehicles? And how high is the level of public acceptance? The Robocab study, performed by Fraunhofer IAO and the Institute for Social-Ecological Research ISOE with the support of the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI), provides insights into international survey results.
Only a few years ago, the topic of autonomous driving was almost exclusively of concern to automobile manufacturers, software companies and automotive component suppliers. In the meantime, the once futuristic vision of the self-driving car is close to being realized, and autonomous driving has become a subject of public debate. The technology is becoming more and more attractive to potential users, even if in most cases it is still not directly accessible for use. For the most part, however, it isn’t clear how we can actually envision these vehicles, referred to as robocabs, in concrete terms. And the expectations and reservations on the part of potential users are equally uncertain.
The Robocab acceptance study was conducted jointly by researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO in Stuttgart and the Institute for Social-Ecological Research ISOE in Frankfurt. It sheds new light on the user’s point of view regarding automated forms of transportation and evaluates acceptance levels for various implementation concepts. In addition to preferences for vehicle equipment and configurations, the main focus of the study was user acceptance. “The potential success of a new form of mobility depends on whether or not users find it attractive and whether or not the price is right. Today societal acceptance is for the most part determined by the question of whether or not the new technology fulfills the criteria of sustainability,” says ISOE mobility researcher Konrad Götz. Accordingly the scientists set out to create an analytical-scientific basis that reflects and delineates the conceivable spectrum of autonomous vehicle concepts and evaluates them in terms of acceptance. In order to collect user perspectives, quantitative surveys of approximately 2,400 participants in Germany, China and the USA were conducted in combination with qualitative interviews of selected test subjects.
The results of the study show that respondees are very open to the mobility concept of the robocab and approach the notion with interest and curiosity. “They expect a practical and convenient mobility solution that gets them from point A to point B in an environmentally friendly, efficient and safe manner,” says Maximilian Werner from Fraunhofer IAO. He adds that on the whole acceptance is highest in China, followed by the USA and then Germany. “In Germany, robocabs are regarded more as a supplement to the means of transportation currently in use, while in China they are even seen as replacing current modes of transportation. It’s interesting to note that survey participants in the USA and in China mainly see robocabs as an alternative to conventional taxi services, while in Germany responses indicated that they might even compete with buses and trams,” says Werner.
The findings didn’t enable a generic vehicle concept for the robocab to be identified; it was more often found to be the case that the specific requirements placed on vehicle characteristics, body and equipment vary according to the respective intended use. Those surveyed regard autonomous vehicles not as a status symbol, but rather as a reliable, practical and swift means of transport. “For the most part those surveyed see robocabs as a kind of taxi or car-sharing vehicle operating primarily in urban areas and less on long-distance trips,” Werner adds. “However, rural areas should be integrated in the transportation network in order to offer a new and attractive alternative to private cars in those areas where public transportation services are scarce.”
In general the results indicate high levels of acceptance for convenient vehicle concepts. Such concepts are particularly appealing to those users who have in the past had a negative attitude towards public transportation because of the inconvenience involved and the lack of comfort and privacy. For them, robocabs represent a kind of convenience shuttle service as an alternative to using their private vehicles. Such larger, high-end but nevertheless practical vehicles could be utilized efficiently in semi-public ride-sharing models.
In addition to expanding the available spectrum of mobility, eliminating the search for parking, greater flexibility and permanent availability were cited by those surveyed as the most convincing factors in favor of using robocabs. “Since the autonomous vehicle can adapt flexibly to requirements and at the same time enables optimum utilization of capacity due to the possibility of carrying multiple passengers, users also expect traffic in general to become more optimized and more efficient,” says Götz. “The respondents also expect that user groups such as teenagers below the legal driving age and senior citizens who are no longer able to drive will now have the possibility to move about independently, flexibly and comfortably.” Nevertheless, some did express reservations about the idea of entrusting their own children to a robocab.
Furthermore, autonomous mobility concepts are perceived as particularly sustainable because the survey participants tended to assume that they involve electric or hybrid vehicles, equipped with batteries with sufficient range for short trips and easy to recharge using existing infrastructures. In summary, respondents expect robocabs to place less of a burden on the environment and provide a viable alternative to other forms of urban transportation.