MS. FRAEDRICH, HOW DO ROAD USERS RATE THE FUTURE COMBINATION OF CONVENTIONAL AUTOMOBILES AND AUTONOMOUS PASSENGER CARS AND COMMERCIAL VEHICLES ON THE ROAD?
For a variety of reasons, that is still difficult to say at present. For one thing, opinions still differ on what exactly an autonomous vehicle is: At what point do assistance systems cease merely helping the driver and take over the responsibility from him? Until now, however, the only way for nearly everyone to get information about this subject has been only through the media. That means that the question of whether they accept this technology is still dominated by an outside perspective and not a personal intent to utilize it. Yet, it is precisely that intention that ought to have a strong impact on shaping public opinion.
DRIVERLESS VEHICLES ARE BEING HEATEDLY DEBATED, WHICH SHOWS SERIOUS FUNDAMENTAL INTEREST, RIGHT?
Yes, especially over the past two years, the media has been increasingly covering the topic. We have also made use of that coverage, for example, to glean readers’ opinions from online comments. We found there was a very positive assessment of the level of technology in the vehicles. At the same time, many people are still sceptical when it comes to that technology being commonly used. At present, there is no clear “for” or “against” on this issue.
HOW IS SOCIETY USING MEDIA TO LEARN ABOUT THE SUBJECT?
Until now, driverless cars were not an issue for broad public discussion. However, that is changing, as revealed by one of our quantitative surveys with 1,000 respondents: They are extremely interested in the subject. Of those surveyed, 78 percent got their information from the mass media, and 40 percent also engaged in discussions using social media.
DO YOU SEE DIFFERENT OPINIONS ABOUT AUTONOMOUS COMMERCIAL VEHICLES AND PASSENGER CARS?
For the moment, autonomous freight traffic is mostly relegated to the sidelines of public debate, but it is being addressed more and more often in scientific circles. Public debate is currently more focused on the differences between the various ways to use driverless vehicles. That also concerns the comparison of individually owned cars and shared vehicles, for instance as part of a fleet of driverless taxis.
WHAT DO PEOPLE FIND SO FASCINATING ABOUT THIS ISSUE?
Think about the potential held by fleets of autonomous vehicles commonly used in major cities: There would be fewer cars, and they would no longer need to be parked on the street because empty vehicles could return to their garages by themselves. That could dramatically alter the urban landscape. There is also the negative vision that driverless cars would be accompanied by greater surveillance. That would be in contrast to the automobile and its promise of individual freedom in the 20th century.
WHAT CAN AUTOMOBILE MANUFACTURERS, THE PUBLIC SECTOR, INFRASTRUCTURE OPERATORS AND OTHERS DO TO HELP THIS NEW AUTONOMOUS VEHICLE TECHNOLOGY BECOME GENERALLY ACCEPTED?
There is no magic formula. It has been shown, however, that people desire a visual explanation of what driverless vehicles are, what they can do – and what they can’t do. The point is not only to show off the technology and its usage. Instead, the aim is mainly to take up the issue in a larger context and address as many groups as possible at different levels.
Eva Fraedrich is a research assistant with the Transport Geography Section of the Geography Department at Humboldt University in Berlin. As part of an interdisciplinary team headed by Professor Barbara Lenz, she examines the acceptance of driverless vehicles in society. Her work is part of the Villa Ladenburg project sponsored by the Daimler and Benz Foundation.