Self-driving vehicles: how exactly will people use them?

A self-driving bus in the Netherlands. Dickelbers, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Self-driving vehicles are great. You don’t need to do anything, the vehicle drives itself. Self-driving vehicles are here already. They circulate mostly in controlled environments, to test the technology. Others are partially automated only (they still require human supervision). But at some point in the future, fully automated vehicles will completely replace human-driven vehicles. This includes not only self-driving cars, buses, vans, and trucks, but also smaller vehicles for deliveries (by road, water, or air). For example, drones.

Many people are still not aware that this is happening, or have only a vague idea. Others do not welcome the idea of self-driving vehicles, because they would prefer to drive themselves. Or they have concerns about safety or about the vehicle software failing during the trip, being hacked, or being used as yet another way for big corporations to spy on them and track their lives.

But people also recognize that these vehicles can be quite useful to transport passenger and freight.

I am working in a research project, funded by the European Union, doing an impact assessment of the economic and social benefits of self-driving vehicles across 8 European countries. Follow us on Twitter, and while you’re at it follow me too.

We spoke with citizens and organizations across Europe to understand what type of self-driving vehicles they think could be useful, and how they, and others, would use them in the futuree.

This study reached more than 300 citizens and organizations, including individuals with different demographic, socio-economic, and residential location characteristics, and organizations of different types, sizes, and geographic reaches.

Many participants suggested on-demand public transport services using self-driving vehicles. Users would just book a vehicle to pick them up, when they need to go somewhere. This could be a way to improve access to places where many people want to go, such as central areas of cities, train stations, universities, schools, hospitals, and health centres. These public transport services could improve the local economy and be useful to people who cannot drive or do not have driving licence.

Shuttles connecting stations or airports with tourist facilities and attractions could have a large potential economic benefit in regions receiving many tourists, and help reducing congestion.

Self-driving buses and mini vans provided by local governments could also improve accessibility of older people, and communities in remote areas. This is a solution, for example, in small islands or in mountainous areas, where people in small villages are isolated in many ways (they are far from the local centres and far from the national capitals and big cities, with few and irregular transport to go there).

When it comes to freight and parcel deliveries, people suggested drones, delivery bots, and pods, which could be used to deliver goods or medication to isolated areas, or in areas where standard delivery vehicles (vans, trucks) have limited access, due to narrow roads.

So, overall there was optimism that self-driving vehicles could improve local economy and enhance social inclusion. Even if they do not plan to use the vehicles themselves, people recognize the utility for others.

There is still time to design future mobility, based on self-driving vehicles, that can benefit all people, instead of being just a privilege for the few who can pay for it. Achieving this type of equitable mobility is a major opportunity for transport policy in the next few years.