One of the most attractive things about driverless cars is their potential to free up the time spent driving from A to B. Like passengers on trains or buses, it’s expected that people travelling by driverless cars will be able to spend their time more usefully – for example by working or reading, instead of wasting it focused on the road, driving.
As transport researchers, we are often interested in how new transport innovations, strategies or projects can make people’s lives more efficient and equitable. So, I wanted to investigate whether people might really spend their time efficiently in autonomous vehicles in the future.
To discover what people might do in driverless vehicles, researchers have asked people directly what their intentions are. The problem is people do not always do what they say they will. So, we came up with a novel idea to get some evidence-based numbers.
Enter chauffeur driven cars
As part of a new study, we sought to find out how people might spend their time in driverless cars in the future, by asking around 70 respondents, who are currently chauffeured to their destinations, how they spend their time in the car now.
However, chauffeur driven cars are relatively rare in the developed world, and even if we could find enough people to ask, the sample would be massively biased, as they would invariably be from the very wealthy section of the society. So, we went to Bangladesh – where it is very common for car owners to have chauffeurs – to understand how they use their time now.
We also asked a sample of around 600 people from around the world – primarily the UK, the US and Bangladesh – about how they might use their time in automated vehicles in future, so that we could compare people’s intentions with the actual behaviours we observed among those driven by chauffeurs.
Work and play
We ranked the current primary activities for the people who used chauffeur driven car and the intended primary activities in driverless cars for all respondents, and found an excellent statistical correlation between these rankings. Where 1 is a perfect match, we saw correlation of 0.92 for trips from home and 0.77 for return journeys, between current and intended activities. In other words, what people intend to do in driverless cars in future matched up very closely with what people actually do now in chauffeur driven cars.
Such high correlation is quite amazing, given that our chauffeured sample is from Bangladesh, who are quite different culturally and economically from the respondents in the developed countries. But this also gives us confidence that people might actually carry out their intended activities in driverless cars in the future.
As expected, nearly all respondents intend to spend at least some time focusing on worthwhile activities such as working, reading, e-mailing, using social media or even taking a nap. Even people with motion sickness tend to engage in activities, but more thinking and planning, rather than working and studying.
Yet we also found that more than a quarter of respondents believe they will keep on watching the road. This might show some lack of trust in the capacity of the driverless cars to navigate effectively – it’s not unusual for people to have such suspicions about new technologies.
For outgoing commutes and business trips, working or studying and thinking or planning are the most popular activities. People tend to relax when returning home from business trips and commutes in chauffeur driven cars, and this pattern will be continued in autonomous cars too. This indicates that clever flexible interior design of the cars, whereby an office interior could be easily switched to a leisure one, may be valued by the users.
Do you dare?
As part of the research, we also found that people who think their time will be more useful in automated vehicles are more inclined to use these vehicles. This shows that there is a link between how useful people perceive time in driverless cars to be, and how likely they are to adopt that mode of travel in the future.
Interestingly, although women perceived that their time spent in driverless cars would be no less useful than men, they are actually less inclined to use these vehicles. On the other hand, parents believe their time in these cars would be more useful, compared with people who aren’t parents – but they are no more likely to use driverless cars. Both of these unusual results might be explained by respondents’ characteristics, for example parents might be more risk averse.
Our research reveals that people intend to use their time in driverless cars productively – especially on the way to work or meetings. What’s more, the evidence from chauffeur driven cars indicates that that might actually happen. It also confirms that people are more likely to adopt this new technology if they think it will be useful to them – as long as they feel the technology can be trusted.