As autonomous vehicle pilots increase, we’re learning more about potential opportunities and niches they could fill. We’re also learning about public perception of and trust in these vehicles. While developing public trust and awareness of autonomous vehicles has been a well-known challenge, a new report released by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) provides additional insight into what riders think about autonomous vehicles. It also highlights ways these vehicles could help to fill existing needs and solve public transportation challenges.
Findings from a Curb-to-Curb Mobility Pilot
The report, An Evaluation of the Valley Metro-Waymo Automated Vehicle RideChoice Mobility on Demand Demonstration, was released in August of 2021. It focuses on the grant that the Valley Metro Regional Public Transportation Authority of Greater Phoenix received in 2016. That grant was part of the FTA Mobility on Demand Sandbox program.
Valley Metro and Waymo partnered together on the project, with the goal of piloting Waymo Level 4 fully autonomous vehicles within the Valley Metro’s RideChoice program. The RideChoice program provides curb-to-curb mobility services for adults over age 65 and ADA paratransit certified people with disabilities. RideChoice offers participants up to 20 trips per month, and the service is offered on-demand with no requirement for advanced bookings.
A group of RideChoice users in the region of the Waymo service participated in three surveys from September 15, 2019 through March 15, 2020, and those surveys reveal key information about participant feelings about safety, trust, and willingness to ride in autonomous vehicles. Focus groups and trip data analysis were also performed.
During the project, the autonomous vehicles operated without human intervention, though safety operators were present. The RideChoice riders reported overall satisfaction and trust in the service.
Participants reported feeling that autonomous vehicles could increase on-road safety. Some participants used both autonomous and traditional RideChoice services during the project. Of those who used both types of services, 70% of respondents felt that the autonomous vehicles were safe. In comparison, only 29% strongly agreed that the traditional vehicles were safe.
Although safety operators were present in the vehicles during the project, between 70 and 80% of participants responded that they would be willing to ride without a safety operator.
Convenience and Potential
Project participants reported strong satisfaction with factors like wait time, cost, travel time, and the overall comfort of their autonomous vehicle rides. The autonomous vehicles also coordinated with participants making new trips. In a survey completed during the project, participants reported that they were taking more trips using the RideChoice program since the autonomous vehicles were incorporated into the program. Participants took more trips in the autonomous vehicles than they did in the non-autonomous vehicle program options during the pilot. This indicates that the program participants embraced the use of autonomous vehicles.
Embracing Autonomous Vehicles
The survey also revealed that the majority of the participants responded that they would like to be among the first people to use autonomous vehicles when those vehicles become available. This largely positive response makes sense, given the fact that these riders had a positive experience and introduction to these vehicles.
A 2020 survey sponsored by Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE) indicated that skepticism toward autonomous vehicles appeared to be connected to lack of exposure to and knowledge about the vehicles, rather than to events like crashes involving autonomous vehicles. The survey indicated that education and outreach were key to improving public trust.
Of the 1,200 survey respondents, 60% noted that they would trust autonomous vehicles more if they had a better understanding of how the technology worked. Similarly, 58% of respondents stated that they would trust autonomous vehicles more if they could ride in one. Nearly half (48%) of survey respondents said that they would “never get in a taxi or ride-share vehicle that was being driven autonomously.”
The RideChoice pilot may be evidence of how well education and experience can work in changing public perception of and building trust in autonomous vehicles. Participants were introduced to autonomous vehicles in a positive way, and they saw the benefits these vehicles offered in terms of affordability, convenience, and overall performance.
That positive experience may contribute to the stark contrast between these participants’ and the PAVE study participants’ acceptance of self-driving vehicles. While 70% of the RideChoice participants felt that autonomous vehicles are safe, nearly 75% of the PAVE study participants said that they felt autonomous vehicle technology isn’t “ready for primetime,” and 48% of participants said they would never get in an autonomous vehicle. Additional pilot programs that give participants exposure to and experiences with autonomous vehicles may further help to build that essential familiarity and, in turn, build trust. We’ll need to review the reports from additional pilot programs to see if that result is consistent.
Additional Opportunities for the Autonomous Vehicle Industry
The RideChoice pilot explores how to use autonomous vehicles to address a current challenge and limitation in the mobility industry. Americans with mobility limitations – in this case, people with disabilities and seniors who cannot drive – face multiple challenges. Scheduling and transportation affordability may limit their ability to travel, and that can affect both quality and life and quality of health. If this population can’t get to doctor’s appointments, grocery stores, and social events, they may see negative impacts on their lives and wellbeing. The RideChoice study indicates that there is likely opportunity for autonomous vehicles to serve in a point-to-point mobility capacity. Focusing on providing transportation to people with mobility limitations is one potential application for self-driving vehicle technology, and it’s a challenge that requires an immediate solution. If autonomous vehicle operation costs continue to decrease, then these vehicles could be a budget-friendly service that makes mobility accessible to low-income households, seniors, people with disabilities, and more.