Why Driverless Cars are everyone’s business!

Everyone is talking about autonomous vehicles (AVs), especially in their most progressive form – driverless cars. Yes they are coming, yes they are close and yes they will have a massive impact on transport services as we know them! Only by getting involved can we make sure that future AV…

Everyone is talking about autonomous vehicles (AVs), especially in their most progressive form – driverless cars. Yes they are coming, yes they are close and yes they will have a massive impact on transport services as we know them! Only by getting involved can we make sure that future AV services will be designed properly for the different people who will use them.

The technology that will enable cars to drive themselves is now current, it is no longer reserved for big budget Tom Cruise (or more recently Ryan Gosling & Harrison Ford) movies! The trends of automation, electrification and shared ownership strongly suggest that in 5-10 years there will be a fully operational service offering electric, autonomous journeys in the largest urban areas.

Up until now the future casting of these services have been left to thought-leaders, along with the scientists, engineers and technologists running vehicle trials. They have suggested that AVs will have the ability to operate like taxis, shuttles or traditional buses, potentially covering both inner city and intercity functions. They could be privately owned, leased, or operated as a public service… so there are still quite a few unanswered questions about what this first driverless service could look like!

The strongest opinion seems to be that of a ‘floating taxi’ model, hailed and paid for at the point of use. This would mean instead of having to walk to your parked car you just hail a vehicle using your smart phone. You get in it and sit back with a book or Netflix while the car takes you to your destination, dropping you off at the door. When that vehicle drops you off it’s then back out picking up the next customer, utilised all day long until it needs a recharge. Fleets of these vehicles would operate within a city centre and, as a service like this grows, so would the array of benefits that shared electric vehicles offer. In short, they make inner city travel much safer, faster and cleaner than most of the modes we use this now.

Knowing these first iterations are likely to be public, shared vehicles used by a wide variety of people, it is important that they are desirable once the novelty of a first driverless ride wears off. In order to gain public acceptance, future trials of AVs will need to include a deeper focus on user advantage thinking about the wider service: why people would use it; what are the benefit to them and to the proprietor; and how can we make AVs work together with other future mobility services.

All of us are mobility users – we each have experience of a range of transport services as well as of sharing our travel environment with others. This makes us, as people, experts on the experience of what a good mobility system looks like, and the pain points you notice when things aren’t going according to plan.

It might seem like we would all have similar mobility experiences but everyone is different. It is the outlying behaviours, opinions, situations and experiences that are interesting and often most important for a new service to accommodate. Imagine you are an elderly user, a young person, someone without access to a smart phone or the internet: How would you use a floating driverless taxi of the future? Where do you see sticking points? What would make a AV service a joy for you to use?

This is where a co-design approach could greatly benefit future pilot schemes – by bringing together potential users with the technologists, designers, business minds and government representatives to ideate and experiment. Through the use of participatory methods, groups would be able to explore the space and suggest their own ideas on how they would want to use driverless cars – and the services that wrap around them. This method would allow a wide range of people to get involved and contribute creatively to this future service.

Co-design, and a more general Service Design approach, does take time and skill to deliver effectively, but with the potential social impact involved with AVs it is likely to be very worthwhile! Indeed, the UK’s Design Council estimated a social return of £26 for their public sector clients who invested in innovative service design.

Through working together using co-design those responsible for implementing the first AV services will be working alongside very different people and can then begin to respond to their individual needs. By prototyping and iterating based on users’ feedback, projects will instantaneously be able to validate the co-created concepts. Projects and trials would gain the support of the participants as the wider service is constantly improved, becomes more inclusive, as well as easier and more joyful to use.

AVs will be a truly disruptive innovation offering a range of societal benefits, but we as humans will always have a choice when it comes to mobility, to walk, to bike, to drive or to pay a service to meet our transportation needs.

If public autonomous vehicles are to be used by the masses they need to be a seamless, smooth service that offers real value. If they are not easy to use, or if users don’t trust the technology quickly, then the period of moving from pilot programs through emergence to mass adoption could still take decades. I, for one, hope and expect to see the technology out on the city streets soon, with real people on board both as passengers and as co-designers at a strategic level exploring the technology’s potential.

Written by Steven Russell of the ESP Group.


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