Intel Autonomous Test
Intel Autonomous Test

There have been several studies in the past few years that asked people about autonomous cars. Would they trust a self-driving car? Would they use a self-driving car? Would they own one or share one or cross the street to avoid one? The answer has generally been a resounding, “We think autonomous cars are weird and kind of scary.” To put it in nonscientific terms.

So Intel rigged up an autonomous car (with a human driver as backup) and put people in the back seat as it drove around. Researchers interviewed participants before and after the drive, and recorded them during the drive. The first thing everyone noted was that autonomous cars are much less scary once you’ve been in them. But they’re still a little weird.

A Matter of Trust

The thing is, people don’t trust the technology yet. And why should they? Our stuff gets hacked constantly, our computers freeze, our internet goes down, and on and on. Why trust a car?

People were especially concerned about a vehicle’s ability to make nuanced decisions. (See Sara’s write-up on the trolley problem.) They were worried about a car’s ability to detect and deal properly with pedestrians crossing in the middle of the street or another car cutting them off. People projected their own less-than-safe driving behaviors onto the self-driving vehicles, too. But autonomous cars don’t get distracted by texts or have a sandwich in one hand, and they react more quickly to potential problems picked up by the sensors.

Once trust is established, though, participants pretty quickly started thinking about how they’d spend their time in an autonomous car. Parents liked the idea of sending their kids off without a potential creep driving the car.

Redesign Required

Automakers love to bring futuristic self-driving pod concepts to car shows. They have screens all around, and chairs that swivel, and maybe a joystick that pops out the dash, and they’re almost always an impossible to keep clean white. Frankly, these concepts seem a bit ridiculous. But they may not be too far off the mark.

The car in Intel’s study was a regular ol’ Lincoln sedan outfitted with sensors and software. As it drove, the steering wheel moved, even though the human in the driver’s seat wasn’t touching it. Participants found that unsettling, so all of those concepts without a steering wheel may be on the right track.

Participants also wanted to be able to talk to the car, using voice commands to change the route or get information, and they wanted the car to be able to answer. People also wanted as much information as possible; they liked seeing what the sensors saw and how the car was using that information.

Hurry Up and Wait

For all of the research going into fully autonomous cars, it’ll still be awhile before you’ll own or share one on public streets. There’s a lot of research to be done.

In the meantime, autonomous shuttles on limited and usually private routes are popping up across the country. These are the baby steps that will allow engineers and end users (that’s you) to integrate these advanced technologies into our daily lives without being too weirded out in the process.—KHG

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