The Road Ahead

Examing and Predicting the World of Autonomous Vehicles

From Batman to Knight Rider–Examining Self Driving Cars in Pop-Culture and the Impact on User Adoption

For action movie fans and comic book nerds alike, there may not be a more iconic and recognizable vehicle than the Batmobile. Making its first appearance in a 1939 edition of DC comics Batman’s tech-ed out auto gadget was thrust into the spotlight. As early as 1966 in Adam West’s portrayal as the superhero, self driving capabilities was one of the most coveted capabilities of the car. Audiences were amazed, witnessing a real world (albeit a movie world) where a concept reserved for comic books and cartoons was shown.

This was one of the first public pop culture introductions the world had to autonomous vehicles and inspired many to write movies or TV shows playing on people’s fascination with these cars. One of the most iconic examples is that of David Hasselhoff’s KITT, a super-powered, intelligent souped-up Pontiac Trans-Am, in Night Rider-a 1982 television series.

What can be said about these pop culture representations that are becoming a part of 21st century reality?

Or maybe there is something deeper at play here. Maybe, these movie and TV examples could be more important than the show-runners ever intended. Perhaps, familiarization an audience to autonomous features is lowering the barriers of adoption and trust by reinforcing a positive psychological bond with a technology through the pop culture examples we as a society are familiar with.

So what is the public’s perception of self driving cars now? A survey of public opinion by University of Michigan Human Factors researchers Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak point indicate interesting results. The main results of the survey of 1533 participants are as follows:

1) The majority of respondents had previously heard of autonomous or self-driving vehicles, had a positive initial opinion of the technology, and had high expectations about the benefits of the technology.

2) The majority of respondents expressed high levels of concern about riding in self driving vehicles, security issues related to self-driving vehicles, and self-driving vehicle not performing as well as actual drivers.

3) Respondents also expressed high levels of concern about vehicles without driver controls; self driving vehicles moving while unoccupied; and self-driving commercial vehicles, busses, and taxis.

4) The majority of respondents expressed a desire to have this technology in their vehicle.

5) A majority of participants were unwilling to pay extra for the technology; those who were willing to pay offered similar amounts in each country.

6) Females expressed higher levels of concern with self-driving vehicles than did males. Similarly, females were more cautious about their expectations concerning benefits from using self driving vehicles.

The researchers note that: “The main implications of these results are that […] while expressing high levels of concern about riding in vehicles equipped with this technology, (participants) feel positive about self-driving vehicles, have optimistic expectations of the benefits, and generally desire self-driving-vehicle technology when it becomes available” (Schoettle and Sivak 2014)

How will self driving car companies navigate consumer apprehensions towards the accuracy, safety and reliability of this new technology?

This presents companies pursuing self driving technology for general commuter use with an interesting hurdle. Aside from cost concerns, how will companies tackle the problem of connecting an quelling the concerns of drivers who want the technology but are troubled by safety, technology and security concerns?

This poses and interesting question in the realm of consumer psychology. Not only how do we go about changing or altering perception and beliefs, but are there certain modalities and mediums of communicating information that are more effective than others? Research performed by Komiak and Benbasat (2006) suggest that “emotional trust plays an important role beyond cognitive trust in determining customers’ intention to adopt.”

Finding ways of forging meaningful connections with customers is already important in today’s economy, but will certainly become of paramount importance in the years to come. Emotional connections and trust are formed through profound life experiences and that certainly included the pop culture that we are surrounded by. Profound connections and mental links are made when we are young and surrounded by the spectacular. Many “millennials” have grown up in a time where sci-fi has pushed the bounds of technology and may be the generation that when confronted with the tipping point of autonomous vehicles, push it over the edge because of our familiarity, knowledge and emotional connection with self driving cars.

Will the film and TV industries have roles in the adoption of autonomous vehicles?

In the next few years we may see a closer connection between big media conglomerates and content producers with forward thinking autonomous vehicle companies. While more research is needed in this field of consumer psychology, learning more about how media can influence our decision making, mental models and adoption probability of technology can help bring self driving cars from an interesting concept, to a technology used by a critical mass of society. Once that happens society will reap the rewards of autonomous technology; notably the increased safety and ultimate decrease of vehicular fatalities, a number that has once again begun to rise.

While it is unlikely that we will see Batmobiles cruising down city streets in the near (or distant) future, its existence and importance in pop culture may be one piece of the answer to the ever complicated question: How do we get people to use and trust self driving cars?

Alexander Wulkan is a Junior at Tufts University studying Engineering Psychology (B.A. Human Factors Engineering) and Entrepreneurial Leadership from Montreal, Qc, Canada. 

Schoettle, B., & Sivak, M. (2014). A survey of public opinion about connected vehicles in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. 2014 International Conference on Connected Vehicles and Expo (ICCVE). doi:10.1109/iccve.2014.7297637 link

Benbasat, I. (2006). The Effects of Personalization and Familiarity on Trust and Adoption of Recommendation Agents. MIS Quarterly, 30(4), 941-960. link


  1. This was a very interesting post, Alex! I totally agree with you in your belief that the relationship between autonomous vehicles and the entertainment industry will prove to be a harmonious and important one. However, to expand on your findings, I believe that this pairing is not only beneficial for the car manufacturers through the use of movies and media to build user trust, but it is also hugely profitable for Hollywood itself. One of the clearest benefits of autonomous driving is the freedom that this grants the driver. Without the need to actually drive and focus on the road, they are free to do as they please. The entertainment industry and more specifically the broadcast industry recognizes this and is acting fast to capitalize. “Its next-gen broadcast standard (known as ATSC 3.0) brings together internet and live over-the-air signals with mobility for delivering video-on-demand content, Ultra HD (4K resolution) and High Dynamic Range TV” (Giardina, Guzik). This technology will eventually give rise to revenue models which will allow for “interactive, geolocated advertising based on nearby shops, restaurants, and businesses” (Wharton).

    Deployment for this tech is supposed to start immediately and is offering a lot of hope for those in the entertainment industry. Like those in airplanes, in-vehicle entertainment systems will be extremely lucrative for Hollywood. In fact, multiple studios are already meeting with potential partners. This opens the door for a completely re-imagined driving experience with the car acting as more of an entertainment hub than a practical means of transportation. With this in mind, tech developers are already thinking of new and innovative ways to make this experience as enjoyable as possible. One idea is to utilize AI to scan the face(s) of those in the car and provide personalized entertainment based on previous interactions with the car.

  2. I really like the way you identified media as a catalyst for consumer trust. As you point out, perhaps the most significant barrier to entry that autonomous vehicles face today is that the vast majority of people would not set foot in a self-driving car if they were given the opportunity today. In regards to your examples like Batman and i Robot, the examples of autonomous vehicles we tend to see in media are out of the ordinary, advanced cars that tend to not be available to the general public, even in these movies. Not everyone in Gotham is driving around in a Batmobile and not everyone in Knight Rider has a KITT. I wonder then if some sort of blockbuster movie where autonomy was portrayed as the norm would make the current technology more appealing to those on the fence. If people could see these cars in action in a more near-future movie or TV show, perhaps they could more readily see themselves driving without their hands on the wheel or eyes on the road. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a media example that has a detailed depiction of widely adopted autonomous vehicles.

    On the other hand, I wonder what the effect on consumer opinion would be if autonomous vehicles were negatively portrayed. I can envision an episode of Black Mirror, the popular dystopian near-future thriller, where these vehicles could serve as the source of conflict rather than something that eases daily stress. In the case that a sci-fi movie shows the dangers of autonomous cars, such as if they were all hacked and used to create mass destruction, maybe the adoption of these cars will be pushed back even further. This has me thinking; it is strange that the timeline for autonomous cars could be so heavily influenced by how Hollywood writes its scripts. I guess we can only hope that autonomous cars can get to the road before a damning movie hits the screens.

Leave a Reply

© 2018 The Road Ahead

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑