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)
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.
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