Exploring public attitudes towards driverless vehicles

By 17th October 2016October 19th, 2016Blog

The idea of a driverless vehicle can seem unsettling, partly because it suggests a lesser amount of control and the suffix -less, also equates to missing – in this instance, of not being complete, or lacking. Autonomous vehicles on the other hand, might engender a different reaction: as something that is made to be self-governing, that doesn’t have to be operated by humans because it can work things out for itself, the autonomous vehicle represents an advanced technology that doesn’t need humans to function.

But the autonomous vehicle is the next step in vehicle evolution. Automated technology has existed in varying capacities for the last century – commercial airplanes, for example, are heavily automated meaning they can take off, fly and land on their own. However, there may be a critical difference in perceptions between automated and autonomous technology. While the former may be perceived to require inputs or supervision from an operator to be made in order to function (still present in case the conditions become unsuitable for automated operation), the latter acquires inputs and makes decisions on its own, enabling it to adjust to differences in external conditions.

So what do we think of when driverless vehicles are presented to us as an inevitability? As a popular subject for Sci-fi, robotics has often been portrayed as something that can go terribly wrong: Skynet, a self-aware form of artificial intelligence, from the Terminator franchise is bent on destroying humankind; Issac Asimov’s short stories from the I, Robot series (1940–1950) contain some of the best known examples of and instances in which humans struggle to control robots precisely because they are designed to be autonomous. Indeed, the idea of autonomous robotics presents broad ethical and philosophical questions – as demonstrated by Asimov’s character Cutie (QT1) when it declares: ‘I myself, exist, because I think.’

To help better understand public’s thoughts and feelings, we are currently exploring the public’s attitude towards the new technology in an effort to understand how the preconceptions of and preoccupations about driverless vehicles might be taken into account in the design process. It’s about engaging the public in conversation about the technology from the beginning to show them how autonomous vehicles work but also that the possibilities of what they can do are potentially boundless.

Within the GATEway project, we are approaching this from two perspectives. The first of which involves gathering information from co-creation workshops to gain a better understanding of the public’s perception.

We invited people from a variety of backgrounds (from experts in robotics to the general public) to engage in the discussions and think about sets of questions and scenarios allows the team to gain an insight into why some might fear the new technology and what people would like autonomous vehicles to do for them.

In total we hosted eight workshops, including over a hundred participants, producing thousands of hopes and fears about the future and more than 30 new driverless vehicle concepts detailing potential new features, services and opportunities to transform our cities.

These workshops, run by a team of designers from the Royal College of Art in London, are helping the GATEway team to better understand the needs, aspirations and concerns of a wide range of people including drivers, non-drivers, enthusiasts, professionals and those with additional needs. So what have we learnt so far?

During the workshops we asked participants to share their understanding of driverless vehicles and helped them to dig deeper into the impact that they might have on our everyday lives.

We started by asking everyone to share their hopes about driverless vehicles – considering issues like safety, ownership, costs as well as their impact on our society and the places that we live and work. Some of their thoughts included:

  • “We’ll never have to park, pay for parking or get fined for speeding again!”
  • “It will allow us to “re-think” the concept of the “road” so that it becomes a less dominant part of our towns and cities”
  • “We’ll get rid of boy racers and dangerous drivers without licenses”
  • “It might even be safer for pets and other animals when they are crossing the road”

And when we asked people to share their concerns we heard real worries about a future that is unknown and potentially highly disruptive:

  • “It will create a two tier system between those who can afford them and those who can’t.”
  • “Even more people might want to use cars instead of trains and buses, creating more congestion and leading to even more roads and urban sprawl.”
  • “It will make us more lazy and lead to an even bigger public health crisis.”
  • “Millions of jobs will be lost and will never be replaced.”
  • “It’s going to lead to the further automation of humanity.”

Many of the ideas were translated in real time by our workshop illustrators, Karen Jiyun Sung and Christiane Matz.

Workshopimage2We then asked everyone to form small teams so that they could co-develop future driverless vehicles that met their needs in new and delightful ways.

Teams started by imagining existing journeys and scenarios and then mapped out all the challenges that they might face during the trip. Journeys included commuting, shopping and trips to see friends or family.

Workshopimage6They then got to work with Playdoh, Lego, paper and pens! Channelling their inner child everyone managed to create imaginative and potentially ground breaking new vehicles that spoke about the positive opportunities of a driverless future.


We are now analysing the almost 500,000 words of recorded conversation to identify the opportunities and challenges that might help build a positive and inclusive driverless future.

Workshopimage3The second part to the project is about delivering the idea of autonomous technology to the public through a series of exhibitions which will present a variety of vehicles in different shapes and sizes that incorporate systems and services, even architectural spaces.

We’ll be showcasing this creative work as well as ideas from Vehicle Designers at the college in an exhibition at the Transport Museum in the New Year and further details will be shared in due course.

We look forward to seeing you then.



Dan Phillips

Visiting Tutor, Royal College of Art

Dan Phillips is a designer and engineer with 30 years’ experience in the development of innovative environments, products and services. He studied at Imperial College and the University of Cambridge and tutors on the Service Design programme at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and has been a member of a number of institutional advisory groups on cities, sustainability and the built environment.

Before coming to the RCA, Dan was Global Director for Sustainability at Buro Happold, ran his own design and innovation practice, the SEA, and worked at Eight Associates, Battle McCarthy, Arup and Ford on large scale projects in the UK, Europe, USA, Asia and Africa.