Autonomous driving: from nightmares to good drive’s sleep

Asleep in your car: nightmare or picture perfect dream?

Imagine, falling asleep in your car, dreaming of rainbows and butterflies, your small nap might immediately turn into a nightmare of accidents, injuries, or even a sudden death. Have we not all been stuck behind the wheel at least once, trying to twinkle the tiredness away, just dozing off for a second to be back on the road, panicky trying to stay in the lane?

Salesmen, driving thousands of miles every month, repeatedly report that they would love to take a nap in the car or prepare for the next meeting and let the car do the driving. In their recent campaign, Deutsche Bahn has portrayed consumer behavior in autonomously driving vehicles, ranging from eating to sleeping. The message is clear: as long, as the technology is not ready, take the train. But when the autonomous car arrives, it is going to fulfill your dreams. In such a not so distance future, companies will sell novel types of mobility: from offices on wheels to rolling-hotels, offering autonomously driving rooms to utilize the journey time for recreation purposes.

Autonomous driving is expected to disrupt our understanding of mobility. It combines the benefits of a private vehicle (e.g., ownership, personalization, isolation, flexibility) with those offered by public transport (e.g., disposable time, beneficial traffic flow, lower emissions, universal access). Despite its benefits, the public debate is frequently dominated by fears, skepticism, and mistrust regarding autonomous driving.

Within our study, we assess the current state of academic research and develop a set of autonomous driver profiles. To this end, we conducted a series of in-depth interviews with a variety of consumers to assess their motivations and fears to drive autonomously. Thereby, we aim at providing relevant insights into the “autonomous consumer”, enabling marketers to concertedly address this target group and engineers to enhance their understanding of the autonomous consumer.

A brief review of academic literature on autonomous driving

The autonomous consumer has to undergo a paradigm shift: he has to part with his role of an operator and become a passenger in his own car (Flemisch, Schieben, Kelsch, & Löper, 2008). Despite this fundamental turnaround in consumer understanding, academic investigations have not jet sufficiently addressed consumers’ motives or fears towards autonomous driving.

Existing research with a consumer focus in the field of autonomous driving has investigated the interaction between an autonomous car and the “driver” (Koo et al., 2015; Koo, Shin, Steinert, & Leifer, 2016), trust in the vehicle interaction process (Basu & Singhal, 2016; Koo et al., 2015), driver responses to voice alerts (Koo et al., 2016), potential changes in travel behavior of people currently unable to drive (Harper, Hendrickson, Mangones, & Samaras, 2016), changes in consumer demand for cars (Schoettle & Sivak, 2015), as well as effectiveness and acceptance of advanced driver assistance systems (Itoh, Horikome, & Inagaki, 2013).

Detailed assessments of consumer perception regarding autonomous driving are, however, rare (Howard & Dai, 2014). Noteworthy exceptions are the exploratory investigations on consumer perception of autonomous driving by Fraedrich and Lenz (2014, 2015).

Employing a qualitative research design, they found a positive attitude towards the autonomous technology in general, but also skepticism towards the actual vehicles and the implementation in the traffic flow, most prominently the expectation of negative social outcomes and a loss of personal freedom. Positive perceptions related to a more comfortable life and new potentials to reach. Furthermore, they identified in a focus group study, that when participants assumed behaviors such as organizational and work-related tasks to be undertaken during a drive, feelings of discomfort were triggered, as participants highlighted that the car would no longer be a place of isolation and regeneration, but become another workplace in the already demanding society. Furthermore, an additional dependence on technology, a lack of fun and control while driving, and a loss of individuality and flexibility were found.

Despite these initial insights, the perception of and attitude towards autonomous driving remain unclear and call for an in-depth assessment of consumer motives and fears. Consumer behavior research shows that non-observable aspects, such as motives, offer valuable insights for the configuration of service and product offerings (Herrmann & Huber, 2000; Patton, 2002). Therefore, we undertook a qualitative approach to uncover overarching motivational Patterns and developed consumer profiles to enrich the discussion on autonomous driving from a consumer perspective.

Methodological Background

We conducted depth-interview-based to collect data on participation motives. The interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed adhering to Wolcott’s (1994) three-level process, consisting of describing data based on the quotes and assigning codes, analyzing it to identify overarching contexts and categories, and interpreting it. Subsequently, we developed a set of prototypical profiles of autonomous drivers, in line with the dominant motivational patterns. We want to stress that the developed profiles are a stylized example and that consumers will be based on a unique set of varying intensities of the profiles outlined below.

The five autonomous consumer-types

Safety seekers are chiefly concerned with traffic safety, which is on the one Hand motivated by the desire for personal safety, on the other hand by social responsibility, meaning the safekeeping of others. When it comes to autonomous driving, they are torn: On the one hand, they value the enhanced safety of the technology. They believe that autonomous driving will enhance traffic safety, as fewer accidents occur due to the elimination of human error. For them, fulfilling their desire for enhanced traffic safety. Yet on the other hand, they fear the Need to give up control over the driving process, technological issues due to immature technologies, or simply the idea of a machine operating a vehicle. This results in a vague, uncomfortable feeling and the driver’s role is degraded to that of a bystander in the driving process.

Socializers blazon the additional disposable time autonomous driving offers them, which they can invest to nurture their social connections. For them, current cars are social-dark spots, prohibiting them from interacting with their peers. Autonomous driving enables them to have more time for private matters, especially engaging in social media, chats with peers, or quality time with their driving companions. Furthermore, the comfortable driving is expected to reduce stress and restore personal energy. These factors lead to the ability to nurture interpersonal relationships and thereby fulfill the need for social connections.

Stewards want to be responsible – and for that, they need to be in charge. Autonomous driving is perceived by them as a means forcing them to give up control to a machine, contradicting the current driver’s role and his responsibility. On the one hand, they want to keep the control over the car as being driven degrades them to simple bystanders in the driving process. On the other hand, they mistrust the technology in general, proclaim that it will fail eventually, and if it does, they have to assume physical, monetary, and ethical responsibility for a situation they could not control.

Suspense sufferers are preoccupied with an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty regarding autonomous driving. This uncertainty founds in the fact that one has to give up control to a complex machine that he does not fully comprehend. Consumers reported that they are thereby dependent on the vehicles’ calculated decision making and feel very uncomfortable with this fact. Especially with regards to the expected occurrence of technological issues and the fact that the car is in charge led to uncomfortable feelings, leaving the car user helpless and related to the uncertainty whether the car would make the right choice and not endanger anyone.

Succeders value the career-benefits autonomous driving offers. They perceive autonomous driving as very beneficial due to the attributes of increased traffic flow and gained time. Both result in additional disposable time available for business related concerns. Participants report that they thereby expect to enhance their career chances.

Recommendations for practitioners

The results of our qualitative study show different facets of autonomous driving: depending on the consumer type, it can be either a nightmare or a dream. For managerial success in market introduction and establishment of this novel technology, we recommend paying Close attention to the identified consumer types, enabling a precisely targeted communication.

Safety is one of the most predominant concerns, it is also a perceived benefit. Participants believed in mature, autonomous driving– safe for themselves and other parties in traffic. Therefore, a relatable and intuitive communication with the vehicle and a relation to already existing safety features is expected to lower barriers for this group.

Whereas succeders and socializers can rather easily be addressed through providing the relevant technology and product features enabling their working and communication (screens, chargers, hotspots) habits, especially stewards and suspense sufferers have requirements going beyond car design. They need external assurance regarding legal safe and adequate insurance provided on a governmental level. Furthermore, technologically and ethically qualified artificial intelligence has to be ensured. As also the requirement of giving up control to a machine bears problems, an experience of successfully working technology previous to experiencing full autonomy could ease the transition. Dedicated trial areas (e.g. test courses), independent third party verifications (e.g. through the ADAC), and reports from testimonials should lower barriers to trial, communicate safety and provide touchpoints. With these lullabies, consumers are expected finally fall for the good drive’s sleep.

Authors of the article

Katrin Merfeld, EBS University for Business and Law, 65189 Wiesbaden, Germany

Mark-Philipp Wilhelms, EBS University for Business and Law, 65189 Wiesbaden, Germany

Prof. Dr. Sven Henkel, EBS University for Business and Law, 65189 Wiesbaden, Germany