Will self-driving taxis freak out passengers? nuTonomy is researching that

Will self-driving taxis freak out the passengers? nuTonomy is researching that
Lim Kell Jay, Head of Grab Singapore, with Dr Karl Iagnemma, Co-founder & CEO of nuTonomy.

This week has seen a blitz of news stories regarding driverless cars, particularly in terms of their use as Uber-like taxi services. Disruptive car manufacturer Tesla – which will make nothing but driverless-ready cars from this point on – intends to launch a ride-sharing service to go along with its cars. nuTonomy is already testing self-driving taxis in Singapore with Grab (albeit not without the occasional mishap). Uber has launched its own self-driving taxi trial in the US city of Pittsburgh.

But one of the less talked about aspects of self-driving taxis is this: how do passengers feel about self-driving taxis? It’s clear the Uber model of using an app to book a discounted ride is popular with customers. What’s not so clear is how customers feel about having nobody at the wheel.

As it happens, nuTonomy is gathering data on that very question. In fact, part of its self-driving taxi test includes gauging customer reaction to the technology and the experience, nuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma said during a presentation at EmTech MIT 2016 this week [via Technology Review]:

This effort, and others like it, will be vitally important, because public perception will play a big role in how rapidly automated driving is commercialized. “You can think of it as the world’s largest, most expensive focus group,” Iagnemma said. “It’s extremely valuable stuff, and there’s just no other way to get the information.”

One interesting finding so far is that some customers adjust pretty quickly, shifting from novelty to boredom in minutes. But for other customers, what they find more offputting is not the absence of a human driver, but the feeling that the car doesn’t drive like a human drives. It’s a similar reaction people experience when dealing with robots that look – but don’t quite act – human.

Iagnemma said that self-driving car makers will have to work on bridging that gap between how cars drive themselves and how humans drive. An additional challenge to this, Technology Review reports, is that humans don’t drive the same everywhere:

Self-driving cars will also most likely need to adapt to driving in different cultures. A car trained on the roads of California, for instance, might prove too laid-back for the notoriously pushy streets of Boston or New York.

Meanwhile, Iagnemma said the nuTonomy trial in Singapore has revealed another shortcoming of self-driving taxis – namely, they can’t help you with your luggage or return the smartphone you left in the back seat.

These are all interesting and important findings. Most people are already used to services that used to require human interaction but don’t anymore, from ATMs to self-checkout kiosks and online shopping. But it takes time – and the experience has to be as easy and convenient as the old-school version.

Self-driving taxis have the additional barrier of being not only a physical experience but also one that raises serious trust and safety issues – i.e. is this taxi really taking me where I want to go? Can it really see that large lorry coming our way? And let’s not get started on the challenges of IoT security. After all, it’s not like no one has already figured out how to hack and remotely take control of a connected car while it’s moving.

So it’s good that nuTonomy is researching the human aspect of self-driving taxis now – it’s arguably (if ironically) the most important aspect of the technology.

1 Comment

  1. What a novel concept Mr Tanner, a taxi driver to “help you with your luggage or return the smartphone you left in the back seat.” I can’t wait for the time when I don’t have to put up with the incessant bleating from taxi drivers on local politics, other bad drivers, how tough their lives are and how Uber is going to kill them off. Driverless cars will also be void of the pervasive body odour that some drivers seem to favour over personal hygiene. Oh, and let’s not forget the occasional F1 racer posing as a taxi driver or, worse still, the apnea suffers that dozes off at the lights. I, for one, could easily get used to driverless taxis.

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