People power will lead to success of autonomous vehicles

As we move closer to autonomous and self-driving vehicles, we continue to put most of our eggs in the technology basket. But many road-safety experts think we need to look at psychology to better understand what is needed to improve highway safety.

Professor Narelle Haworth is the director of Queensland University of Technology’s Center for Accident Research & Road Safety – Queensland (CARRS-Q). She is the driving force behind the launch of the 2016 International Conference on Traffic and Transport Psychology, being held in Brisbane, Australia August 2 through August 5.

The meeting of over 300 psychologists, researchers and road-safety experts will be a forum for sharing the latest in road safety research with the aim of reducing road trauma. CARRS-Q and Griffith University will also be marking the halfway point in the United Nations Decade of Action.

Decade of Action is a global initiative uniting over 70 countries in an effort to reduce traffic accidents and road fatalities worldwide. It was launched on May 11, 2011, and is just one of many global road safety measures member nations have been focusing on to enhance the behavior of road users — especially when it comes to new autonomous vehicle technologies.

A Google self-driving car manoeuvred around some sandbags and was hit at low speed by a bus in Mount...

A Google self-driving car manoeuvred around some sandbags and was hit at low speed by a bus in Mountain View, California in February 2016
Noah Berger, AFP/File

“A lot has changed in the last five years. Today we are presented with Utopian visions of automated transport in which humans have little role to play in driving but the road to the future must consider human motivations, decisions, and capabilities,” Professor Haworth said, as reported in Science Newsline.

Professor Haworth explains that road safety experts need to listen to what drivers really want in automobile technologies, and then ask if they will really use the technologies. One of the biggest issues is with autonomous vehicles. She says it isn’t that technology is an obstacle, its psychology, and as road safety experts, it is their challenge to understand if people can really learn to trust autonomous vehicles.

There has been a lot of talk about ride-sharing. General Motors’ says autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing go together like a horse and carriage, according to AutoTrader. But Professor Haworth contends that most people would refuse to give up their private vehicles to move to shared, self-driving cars.

There are a number of other issues to be considered at this week’s CARRS-Q meeting. Would self-driving technology give rise to health problems, such as obesity, by reducing the time spent walking to parking lots?

“Will we be willing to entrust our children to self-driving machines? And will improvements in technology improve road safety in developing countries or just magnify the current inequities?” Haworth adds. “All of these questions relate to traffic and transport psychology and they are too important to be left to technology developers to solve.”

The professor feels that if these and other questions are left unanswered, the road to safer mobility may be longer than we think. “We need to continue the momentum to ensure that real action is taken to make roads safer for the challenges faced today and into the future.”