The development of fully autonomous vehicles is progressing rapidly, but many questions remain to be answered. Will people buy them? Will people pay to take trips in them? These are questions we will not be able to fully answer until autonomous vehicles (AVs) are widely available, but we can get an idea about the potential use by looking at how AV pilots are being utilized, and by conducting surveys asking potential passengers directly how they feel. Students at Virginia Tech recently conducted a survey of DMV area residents to help build a picture of what locals think of AVs.
How AVs are used will likely be influenced by the built environment, employment patterns, demographics, and available alternative transportation infrastructure, so it’s important for studies to address local context. To date, there have been several studies on attitudes towards AVs, asking about knowledge, fears, and possible usage of different AV systems, but this is the first study of its kind focusing on the DC region. This study was part of a Virginia Tech studio class led by Dr. Elizabeth Morton for Virginia Tech’s Urban and Regional Planning master’s program.
Northern Virginia is a particularly interesting place to study AV attitudes. Ballston, the Dulles corridor, and Crystal City are hubs of technology and innovation, and the population overall in Arlington is highly educated , with 40% of residents holding a Graduate or Professional Degree. Arlington also has the prototypical example for transit-oriented development in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. The question of whether AVs will compete with, or supplement this infrastructure, is a critical one for the region to answer.
People like AVs and indicate they will use them if they are available
The vast majority of respondents (96%) indicated they had at least a little bit of knowledge about AVs and most (70%) expressed willingness to use AVs if they were made available. An encouraging response is that more respondents indicated they would use a shared AV (47%) rather than own one personally (28%). This is a hopeful sign that the promise of AVs encouraging more people to share vehicles could come true. This could result in less vehicle miles traveled per person, meaning less congestion and less energy used. Additionally, 44% of respondents said that they would be willing to give up their personal vehicle for a shared AV.
Not having to find or pay for parking was a major draw
The biggest draw of AVs for respondents was avoiding many of the drawbacks of driving a personal vehicle: finding parking, not being able to do anything else while you drive, and stress. Parking was one of the top three benefits with 60% of respondents pointing to it as a benefit (respondents could pick up to three), but it was extremely close with making better use of travel time (61%) and being less stressed from driving (59%). Interestingly, only 42% of respondents pointed to fewer deaths and injuries as a potential benefit even though boosters of AVs have pointed out that AVs could reduce the high number of crashes caused by human error and a report by RAND states deploying AVs that are slightly better than human drivers could prevent many traffic deaths. It is possible that respondents are either not familiar, or not persuaded by these arguments. Additionally, recent AV news has been negative, which could lead respondents to have more trepidation than the analysts.
People were nervous about the tech
Though overall respondents viewed AVs positively and were willing to try them, the top potential risks identified by respondents are important to look at as well. The number one potential risk identified by 79% of respondents was the possibility of the technology not working properly all the time (again, respondents could pick up to three options). This indicates that making AVs as safe as possible, in reality and appearance, is vital for countering negative perceptions of AVs. Respondents also indicated they were concerned about the possibility of AVs being hacked and personal data being compromised. This reflects broader concerns about the tech industry and data privacy. Countering these fears may be important, but on the other hand, consumers have so far continued to use smart phones and social media services, despite similar privacy concerns.
Women were less willing to adopt shared AVs than men
One interesting result of the study was the difference in attitudes to AVs by gender. Men in the study expressed much higher willingness to give up personal vehicles in favor of a shared AV; 50% of men but only 30% of women indicated that they would be willing to do this. This confirms previous research that has looked at differences in perceptions of AVs by gender. To delve deeper into this question, Virginia Tech student Daniel Clark took the data from the survey and subjected it to additional analysis. Interestingly, additional analysis revealed that men and women in the study did not differ in their thoughts about AVs in general. This indicates that the difference in willingness to give up personal vehicles has more to do with personal travel needs than concerns about AVs specifically. Previous research shows that women are responsible for a disproportionate share of errand trips, especially those for children which means that women end up car sharing less than men. Indeed, in the further analysis, men and women find different aspects of AVs appealing. Male respondents were twice as likely to see saving money as a benefit of AVs, and more men thought that traveling more efficiently would be a benefit of AVs.
The results of this research indicate that while people in the region are willing to try AVs, companies and regulators will have to build trust with potential riders. It is encouraging that 44% of respondents indicated that they were willing to give up their personal cars. This could mean that the “heaven” scenario, outlined by Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase, where AVs usher in a future where far less people own personal vehicles opting instead for shared autonomous vehicles, is possible. However, to make this possible, AV developers may have to work more to make their vehicles familiar and trustworthy to the general public, and regulators must keep a close eye to make sure AVs are not widely deployed before they are safe in practice and in perception. Additionally, this research suggests that shared AVs may not meet the travel needs of women. Deeper investigation into the car sharing model is necessary to understand this shortcoming, in addition to a recognition that transportation is not one size fits all. Personal and shared AVs will likely only be one part of a broader transportation puzzle.
Personal preferences and needs will be a major factor behind AV adoption, but those needs and preferences will also be shaped by the built environment. For the next installment in this series, we will take a closer at the real estate developers that shape the built environment.