The movement towards autonomous transportation is something we have long thought to be unstoppable. But slowly we are realizing that developing technology is not our only concern. Moreover, we need to focus on human psychology. In 2007, we watched the first benchmark for autonomous driving in a realistic environment. Autonomous vehicles like Google’s self-driving car [...]

The movement towards autonomous transportation is something we have long thought to be unstoppable. But slowly we are realizing that developing technology is not our only concern. Moreover, we need to focus on human psychology.

In 2007, we watched the first benchmark for autonomous driving in a realistic environment. Autonomous vehicles like Google’s self-driving car were well-covered by the press and are now mostly known to the public. Companies see autonomous transportation as the solution for inefficient traffic[1], pollution[2] and the continuous growth of (traffic) accidents.[3] Critics point out that the biggest drawback to this autonomy is that passing an ethical judgment is much harder when it comes to technology based, rather than human based situations. This could affect the implementation of autonomous transportation greatly. But there are more problems when it comes to the pace of adoption. Trust, a sense of safety and willingness to hand over the remote to computers, it all seems to revolve around human psychology and will influence the speed of adoption.


So, what would influence this enough to ensure a smooth and successful transition? This is a question that is most important to anyone who is interested in taking autonomous transportation to the next level. But first it is important to explain why autonomous transportation is a step forward at all.

Transforming Forward

Although many people enjoy driving their own car, autonomous vehicles have a lot of benefits which outweigh the pleasure of driving your own car. Yearly there are 6 million car accidents in the United States alone. Studies show that if 90% of the cars on the roads are self-driving cars, this number would drop to 1.3 million. Not only would the roads become safer but also more efficient. Traffic jams might become a thing of the past, making people arrive on their destination quicker and with less fuel used than before. Maybe the biggest gain of autonomous transportation is the extra available free time. Time that than would be available to work, study, sleep or maybe just relax and read a book before arriving at your meeting. Studies have shown that worldwide 1 billion hours could be saved if autonomous transportation will be embedded into society.

Sense of Safety

Therefore, many companies are experimenting with autonomous transportation. Their goal is to make sure that self-driven cars and automobile trucks will be part of the street image in the very near future. These changes will not affect the automobile industry alone, but reach much further. Just a few examples of other methods of transportation that will be affected by this probable autonomous overtake are trains, trams, (delivery) drones, aircraft, buses, ships and lift trucks. This (future) change will have a major impact on humans as well. The technology is already advanced and we are all aware of the enormous steps that are being made by leading companies such as Tesla and Google. Society knows that innovative changes are about to shake up the industry. Still, a recent study shows that society experiences a major lack of understanding when it comes to this subject.


The advances in autonomous transportation represent much more than merely the rise of ‘cars that are able to drive themselves’. Ever since transportation methods have been invented, human beings have always had direct control over vehicles. This feeling of control could represent the key problem, because with the introduction of autonomous transportation, this sense of control disappears. Because of this, it is very important to understand the human psychology behind adopting innovative ways of transportation in which humans have no active role. Trains, airplanes and so on are examples where there is already a distance between the control panel and the passenger. It could be a starting point to see in which way distance to the control panel affects the way and speed of adoption. However, this psychological aspect of self-driven transportation is currently given only little attention.


Innovators have a vision of automated cars in which humans have little or no role to play. Driving and decision-making will become a technology-based, rather than a human-based job. When we, as humans, feel like we are losing control over something we are used having control over, it is important to have enough time to adapt to this new situation. As is the case with all changes, making sure that adoption feels natural is the key to success. So how and why should we influence this psychological change? We start by building trust.

Trusting the unknown

Creating trust is not easy when it comes to humans and technology. Trusting technology is often based on predictability and motivational relevance.[1] People don’t necessarily want to know exactly in what they are putting their trust (we don’t need to go into the technical details), but mostly want to be reinsured that the behavior is predictable and that they are not in for a nasty surprise. Besides that, they need to feel the relevance: how can I benefit from this device that makes it worth taking the risk of trusting it?


Autonomous transportation (in this example a car) requires that vehicles make their own decisions, where that decision used to be the domain of the human driver. This means that every decision an autonomous vehicle makes is basically unpredictable. How can we trust something when we do not understand why or how it makes its decisions? Of course, we have exactly the same problem when it comes to human decision-making. When we are sitting inside a car with, for instance a colleague behind the steering wheel, we also don’t know which decision that person will make when a traffic incident will occur. Still, based on our knowledge about that person, we trust him or her. Interesting is that when we look at humans in traffic situations, we always try to interpret the situation from a psychological level. Why not with autonomous transportation? It could be that the solution to this trust issue can be solved by helping people understand autonomous systems better, so they can learn to trust the system equally as humans. Trust, in this case, is one reason why the adoption of autonomous transportation should be given some time. The more people understand its behavior, the faster they will choose to trust it.

Seamless Transition

There are many different ideas about the ways we can influence this psychological change of making people trust autonomous systems. Some are more drastic than others. It is important that we enhance the research that could bring us to a key solution in this process, but mostly we need to give it time. While technology drives forward in this matter, humans are struggling to keep up. How bigger the knowledge gap between technology and society, how harder it can be to ensure adoption. By informing people and making the behavior of autonomous transportation feel more predictable and trustworthy, we enhance the way to success. So maybe the most innovative thing to do right now is to understand the most interesting autonomous part of life: the human mind.

[1] M. M. Waldrop, Autonomous vehicles: No drivers required. Nature 518, 20–23 (2015).doi:10.1038/518020a pmid:25652978

[2] B. van Arem, C. J. van Driel, R. Visser, The impact of cooperative adaptive cruise control on traffic-flow characteristics. IEEE Trans. Intell. Transp. Syst. 7, 429–436 (2006). doi:10.1109/TITS.2006.884615

[3] K. Spieser, K. Treleaven, R. Zhang, E. Frazzoli, D. Morton, M. Pavone, “Toward a systematic approach to the design and evaluation of automated mobility-on-demand systems: A case study in Singapore,” in Road Vehicle Automation, G. Meyer, S. Beiker, Eds. (Lecture Notes in Mobility Series, Springer, 2014), pp. 229–245.

[4] Trust and suspicion Morton Deutsch Journal of Conflict Resolution Vol 2, Issue 4, pp. 265 – 279 First published date: July-01-2016.