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Will we bully self-driving cars?

There are lots of stories in the press about driverless cars but most of them seem to focus on technology and safety. This story takes a more human view – how will drivers of conventional cars act towards self-driving cars? A recent study by London School of Economics and Goodyear suggests some drivers could be tempted to bully them!

One of the 12,000 participants in this pan-European study said of driverless cars, “They’re never going to do anything horrible to us. They’re nice cars.” It’s a revealing statement: it suggests we might start treating driverless cars like people.

The research views the road as a “social space” where people drive according to their level of “driving sociability”. “Cooperative” drivers enjoy interaction with others on the road and, at the other end of the scale, “combative” drivers are more likely to flout the rules of the social space.

How sociable can self-driving cars be?

Participants were asked whether or not they agreed with these statements:

  • Machines don’t have emotions so they might be better drivers than humans (37% agreed)
  • Machines don’t have the common sense needed to interact with human drivers (60% agreed).

More people were convinced self-driving cars don’t have common sense than were certain they don’t have emotions so they could be better drivers. Attitudes or openness to driverless cars varied but most people had reservations about them:

  • 26% said they are comfortable (totally, very, or quite) with using one
  • 29% said they are comfortable driving beside one
  • 44% feel uncomfortable about using one
  • 41% feel uncomfortable about driving beside one.

Breaking the rules

Interestingly, combative drivers were more comfortable with self-driving technology and more likely to have the confidence to use these cars - perhaps they seemed easier to deal with than humans. Combative drivers even said they would take advantage of driverless cars by breaking the rules and forcing them to fit in to be safe.

Volvo recently announced a UK pilot scheme in 2018 to lease 100 self-driving 4WD vehicles for use on busy main roads in London. The cars will be unmarked, so that drivers are not even tempted to treat them differently from other cars.

It is not surprising many people are wary of giving up control of a vehicle and being forced to rely on technology for their safety (although pilots do this all the time). Moreover, it may take a long time to allay well-founded fears that driverless cars will not integrate well into the “social space” of the road.