“People want to get back to work, back to everything they were doing before the pandemic, and having cheap, affordable, reliable, safe transportation is going to be incredibly important to do that. And that’s where self driving technology offers a huge improvement over what everybody had, what everybody has today. That’s why we’re so excited to get the tech on the road and give people a better form of transportation so they can go about their lives.”

—Dan Ammann, GM President on driverless technology in ride-sharing vehicles, June 2021

Many of us grew up on sci-fi TV shows and movies like The Jetsons and Knight Rider. The rapid progression of technology and human imagination created futures where drivers were rendered nearly obsolete, where flying cars made roads irrelevant, where brownies could be squirted, freshly baked, from a Reddi-wip canister (Phil of the Future, anyone?). It’s 2021, and while we may still have to manually bake brownies and our cars are steadily ground-bound, self-driving cars are inching closer to a reality.

However, despite our biggest KITT 2000 dreams, many Americans still have reservations when it comes to autonomous driving. In March 2019, just a few months after the president of General Motors, Dan Ammann, voiced his excitement about witnessing history in the field of automotive innovation, the LA Times reported that 7 out of 10 Americans “[didn’t] want to go anywhere near self-driving cars.”

Yet, advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) are more common in newer cars than perhaps most people realize—according to American Automobile Association (AAA), 96% of all 2020 cars came with at least one ADAS feature like automatic emergency braking or blind spot sensors. In fact, a February 2021 article in Forbes magazine suggests that Americans are starting to warm to the idea of self-driving cars—so long as safety is prioritized. Still, despite this, just 14% of drivers said they would trust riding in a vehicle that drives itself while the other 86% were either afraid (54%) or unsure (32%) of self-driving vehicles.

Despite current popular concerns, huge benefits are expected to come from autonomous driving, such as reclaiming hours lost to morning commute and the ability to control not just the car’s internal environment, but its' external one, too. So, what can AV engineers do to sway the minds of the nervous consumer? Building trust can be difficult. People tend to trust other people over machines, especially because there’s a lot yet that we still don’t understand about machines.

Levels of autonomous vehicles

What people who are worried about giving up control might not realize is that cars have already been making the progression toward automation for years. While people may not have already ceded control to their cars just yet, they have been driving vehicles that utilize technology such as computers or sensors longer than they realize. Electronic control units (ECUs) have long been part of the driving experience from things like traction control to automatic climate control or even assisted parking.

When discussing autonomous vehicles (and the progression of technology which is leading to their creation), there are six levels of driving automation that range from fully manual to fully autonomous. The first three levels require a human driver in the vehicle to monitor the driving environment while the highest level of autonomous vehicles see fully driverless cars without steering wheels or brakes.

Most cars on the road today fall into one of the three lower levels of autonomous vehicles which range from no automation to partial automation, including cars with advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS. In fact, driving as we know it today would not be the same without ADAS or many other semi-automated features. Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) were invented in the late 1960s, appearing as we know them today in 1978 with the W116 Mercedes-Benz S-Class model. Stability control, which came along in its modern form in 1989, uses components and sensors from other safety features, like ABS, to limit torque and power to regain control of the car when said sensors detect that the driver is losing control.

Autonomous vehicles and consumer trust

As technology progresses, we become more and more reliant on the next-big-thing. Why shouldn’t that be autonomous driving? We already have smartphones and smart houses, things only dreamed about a few decades ago. We use things like Google Maps to handle navigation in new places. What person hasn’t relied on real time maps to warn them about road construction or a patch of bad traffic? Similar to how the map application on our phone or in our car reads traffic and makes adjustments to find the optimal route, autonomous driving can step up when drivers forget about things like checking their blind spot or if a driver fails to notice that the car in front of them has suddenly braked.

In that vein, many people already drive cars with level one and two automation: cruise control, stability control, ABS. We all know that ABS, for example, goes a long way when a car is hydroplaning. Using developed and developing technology that bumps our cars up from a level two or three to a level four in terms of autonomous vehicles means that we’ll be able to control more than just the car itself. We’ll be able to control the car’s environment, and that’s really cool!

But the main difference between autonomous vehicles and the other technologies mentioned is that we take ABS, stability control, and Google Maps for granted. They’re like magic. The work goes on behind the scenes and we go about our daily lives without giving a second thought as to how they function. Autonomous driving, on the other hand, is a novelty. As such, we are rightfully suspicious about something we have never seen before doing things for us that we previously had to do for ourselves. In order for autonomous driving to be adopted, it has to become painfully ordinary. It has to work—and work invisibly—just like any other tool we take for granted.

As Martin Kahl, an award-winning automotive industry expert, wrote in a 2020 article for  Automotive World, “developers of AVs need to [...] remember that people often just want a journey that is convenient, affordable, and otherwise unremarkable.”

But that’s where we discover an interesting conundrum. Everyone’s perception of “ordinary” is different. For one person that might be pushing the speed limit slightly in order to get to work on time. For another, that might be cautious driving in the slower lane because they’re taking their new baby home from the hospital. For people to trust and adapt to autonomous driving, the AI present must be invisible to those using it.

What’s next?

Similar to how our iPhones behave, people may expect autonomous driving in cars to behave intuitively. In this modern Jetson-world, our devices have become part of our personality. Indeed, they are an extension of it. Why not our cars? We can’t expect self-driving to be a one size fits all model. Someday in the future, will a company figure out how to match a car’s autonomous driving capabilities to the personality of that car’s real driver?

The biggest hurdle in autonomous vehicles may not be keeping the car from hitting another car or signaling to properly exit the highway, rather it will be creating technology that will be able to perceive and execute tasks in the way another human might: “Just pull up there, please.” This is where the importance of getting real user feedback comes in. Observing the way that drivers in the real world operate, the way they think, is the next step to be able to build the technology that understands user intent, rather than a command that comes from a book.

It’s exciting to think about the future of autonomous driving, and we are optimistic to see what comes from these companies who are blazing trails in automotive innovation. However, until users fully trust their self-driving cars, it will be hard to push them from the dealership into people’s homes and hearts. While self-driving cars may come with fail-safes and intensive lab testing, to truly ensure that drivers trust the car enough to give up control, we need comprehensive user testing and a research platform which understands what’s actually happening on the road. Only this kind of testing can generate the sort of trust which will lead to more Americans purchasing self-driving cars.

That’s where Pulse Labs comes in. It’s hard to simulate a real drive in a lab, a situation which doesn’t provide real fidelity into the thoughts and questions that real drivers have or what’s actually happening in their car while driving. Our ability to get cameras inside the car and observe real world driving situations provides tremendous value in the product development of features which will gain user trust and reassures the driver that the car can do what they want in a safe, intelligent manner. That the car can—and will—adapt to their commands as appropriate, even without brake pedals and a steering wheel.

Once autonomous driving is indistinguishable from human driving, then we will convince the public that they are one and the same. AV companies need to emphasize the importance of how their vehicles address real user needs. Users need to clearly understand the value that autonomous driving provides them—and the safety measures which come with autonomous driving. People want the Jetsons future without the uncertainty which gets them there and we can help assuage that.