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Automated road traffic: “Also a matter of will”

Professor Dr. Marcel Hunecke, research professor at the Applied Social Studies department of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Dortmund, speaks about the psychological factors influencing our mobility behavior and the new role that we humans will adopt in the future world of automated and connected road traffic.

by Peter Rosenberger

Professor Hunecke, your book “Mobilitätsverhalten verstehen und verändern” (“How to understand and transform mobility behavior”) investigates the personal and situational factors that influence mobility. How many of the chapters will have to be reworked with the transformation of road traffic into an Internet of Things?

Well, no chapter will have to be completely rewritten, I think, but I will definitely have to add a number of important aspects. Obviously, an essential topic will be information management since, in this respect, the expanding range of mobility offers is putting ever greater demands on the users. New options require new decision-making strategies, in which both personal and situational factors are playing a role since also in automated road traffic we will want to act on our individual preferences. In the end, one of the aspects that make using a personal car so attractive is the fact that it does not involve advance planning and coordination. The car is right there at my doorstep and I can simply hop in and drive off. This means that the car as we know it is a typical ‘autonomy tool’ – and the desire for autonomy is one of the fundamental human needs.

So you would say that autonomously operating vehicles and our desire for autonomy are conflicting goals?

Yes, or at least I see a potential conflict there. We humans have an extraordinary power to adapt and will certainly learn to handle automated systems with ease. But in the end, it is also a matter of will. As I see it, the introduction of self-driving vehicles is a largely market-driven trend, with little to no impetus from the users themselves. Yet it is all the more vital that the users’ psychology be taken into consideration when developing the technologies and in particular the organizational details of the system’s actual deployment. As long as, on the psychological level, automation is associated with having to give up a large part of one’s autonomy, people will tend to reject it. Only if the system leaves the users enough leeway for autonomous decisions, will automated driving have the chance to play out its strengths on the road. By the way, this attitude towards autonomy has much to do with the desire for privacy. The more the automated road traffic of the future caters to this wish, the higher acceptance it will meet with.

Would a self-driving taxi offer a high enough level of privacy?

Yes, definitely. Already today, taxis would be a much more attractive means of transport if only they weren’t so expensive. The elimination of the costs for the driver will make taxis affordable for a much larger group of people. Actually, the absence of a driver means more privacy – a double advantage, so to speak. For the municipal entities, on the other hand, this will create major conflicts when it comes to road usage. When instead of one bus with 30 passengers as many autonomous taxis with one passenger each are whizzing along, there will be a political question to answer: Who is to be given priority in using the available public space? Do we really want to build even more roads in order to accommodate rising traffic volumes – or do we prefer additional leisure space or maybe shopping malls?

Autonomous taxi: „For the municipal entities, a flood of self-driving vehicles on urban roads will create major conflicts of interest when it comes to road usage.”

What is your view on flexible schemes of self-driving mini-buses, whose high priority within the road network will translate into substantial time gains for the passengers?

I think this could work very well, especially as an alternative to active mobility on the last mile, i.e. the section that today suffers most from a lack of public transport services. Such a scheme would maintain a certain level of privacy while meeting the key goal of increasing collaborative use of transport means, which offers clear advantages both in terms of traffic flow and environmental protection. But of course, this presupposes that the responsible municipalities address this question in good time. As things stand today, some of them are not even able to provide a sufficient number of parking slots for car-sharing schemes. The deployment of such mini-bus systems would be more complex by far. However, in my eyes their introduction will make absolute sense, not only in the urban context, but also in rural areas.

Do you have the impression that the municipalities are already thinking hard enough about the challenges and chances that tomorrow’s automated and connected road traffic will bring?

The topic is certainly meeting with enough attention. But unfortunately, taking the relevant decisions is often a very slow process. Yet, one thing is quite certain: Once autonomous vehicles will have started to cause problems, such as urban streets overcrowded with self-driving cars, the responsible authorities will definitely have much greater difficulties in implementing the necessary measures. An example: Even today, the introduction of priority lanes dedicated to self-driving mini-buses requires the coordinated efforts of countless stakeholders – whose number will continue to rise with every passing year.

So the municipalities should try and begin immediately to actively shape this development?

Without any doubt. Also the definition of specific additional criteria based on socio-political objectives will certainly be much easier now than at a later point of time. For instance, I would strongly recommend that, from the start, autonomous vehicles should be required to use emission-free drive systems powered by regenerative sources. Otherwise the expected additional traffic volumes will worsen the already highly problematic environmental situation to an unacceptable degree.

Professor Dr. Marcel Hunecke: “The main hurdle that we need to overcome is the fear of losing one’s autonomy.”

You have no doubt that traffic volumes will grow with the introduction of autonomous vehicles?

For sure. Of course, the automated and connected traffic flows of the future will be easier to steer efficiently. But the resulting efficiency gains will be far from compensating the effects of the additional demand. Don’t forget that the availability of autonomous vehicles offers added value not only for people who are unable to drive themselves, but also for those who today tend to (temporarily) abstain from using their private car because they fear potential traffic jams or the endless search for a parking space.

On the way to an automated future, our mobile society will have to do away with some of its decades-old and firmly established value projections, i.e. we have to stop seeing the private car as a status symbol and motoring as an equivalent of freedom and individuality. Do you think we will be able to do that?

As explained earlier, the main hurdle that we need to overcome is the fear of losing one’s autonomy. In comparison, it will be much easier to gradually weaken the projections you mentioned. Our desire for freedom, I think, will not make us hold on to the car as we know it today, even if the automotive industry keeps catering to this longing with deeply symbolic images. Even the pursuit of individuality will keep only very specific target groups from switching to new transport services. And the car’s status symbol function is less a question of pure ownership than of which type of car you can afford to drive. Especially in the premium sector, I expect this attitude to persist for a long time.

So you do not share the opinion of the CEO of Lyft, a company competing with Uber, who predicts that by 2025 private car ownership will be a thing of the past?

No, not at all. Before venturing a prediction like this, we should ask what kind of social system would be necessary to enforce such a development. A kind of totalitarian structure, I’d say. We should not think in specific time spans, and certainly not in such a short one.

“The deployment of flexible self-driving mini-buses would make absolute sense, not only in the urban context, but also in rural areas.”

Professor Dr. Marcel Hunecke, research professor at the Applied Social Studies department of the University of Applied Sciences Dortmund

For many years now you have been advocating that people be encouraged to engage in active mobility. Will the permanent availability of self-driving taxis and mini-buses at a simple swipe across the smartphone’s display make your work more difficult?

It is quite possible that some people will then be even harder to motivate to use their bicycle or their feet to travel from A to B. But in essence, the basic situation will be just the same: For the most part, our daily trips are shorter than two miles or so. And for such a distance, active mobility is and remains the very best option, and not only because of its positive effects on health, well-being and quality of life. And in the future, automated road traffic has the potential to increase general road safety, thus minimizing the only real disadvantage for pedestrians and cyclists.

In your book you emphasize the fact that segmenting the different user groups is an essential prerequisite for the successfully initiation of changes in mobility behavior. Will this still apply in times of automated road traffic?

Yes, of course. A useful, though relative coarse criterion for differentiation is certainly by age group. It should be rather difficult to try and devise a campaign that will touch the nerve of both Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants. However, age alone is not a sufficient basis for segmentation. For maximally effective communication measures, we need also to consider the road users’ individual mobility-specific preferences. A group that needs to be addressed separately may include all those people who really love to take the wheel and are hence reluctant to consider the advantages of being driven. A totally different communication approach may be required for people for whom driving is truly the epitome of individual freedom.

Is it necessary to address individual target groups not only using different content and tonality, but also via different channels?

I don’t think so: The most effective channel for influencing the road users’ mobility behavior is and remains personal contact. Pithy e-mails and dazzling web pages alone will draw ever less attention in a world overflowing with visual information everywhere and anywhere. There is a reason why car dealers are still organizing special events, including barbecue and bouncy castles, to draw people to their showrooms. The best chance of reaching people is via their personal networks because people are generally much more open to ideas and things that friends or relatives have tried and found to be great. <br> Is it necessary to address individual target groups not only using different content and tonality, but also via different channels?

Actually, what are your own emotions when thinking about the automated road traffic of the future?

Let’s say, I have mixed feelings because the automation of traffic does not directly address the truly important questions. In my eyes, the focus should be on the transition to emission-free drive systems and on an increased usage of public transport services. If automation, for instance in the form of flexible service based on autonomous mini-buses, contributes to these goals, that is great. But automation should not be a market-driven goal in itself, distracting our attention from the fact that the true problems lie elsewhere.

Professor Hunecke, thank you very much for talking to us.

Peter Rosenberger works as a journalist in Birkenau
Picture credits: iStock/Olivier de Moal, iStock/Scharfsinn86, Professor Dr. Marcel Hunecke

Professor Dr. Marcel Hunecke

Since 2009, Professor Dr. Marcel Hunecke (psychologist M.A.) holds the chair of General Psychology, Organizational and Environmental Psychology at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Dortmund. In December 2008 he qualified as professor in the field of Applied Psychology at the Faculty of Psychology at Ruhr University Bochum, where he has been a lecturer and member of the Working Group for Environmental and Cognitive Psychology ever since. In various functions, including leading and coordinating positions, he has been involved in more than 25 inter- and transdisciplinary research projects focusing on sustainability and mobility. Since 2014 he works as research professor at FH Dortmund and heads the master degree program “Social Sustainability and Demographic Change”.