Ride hailers may help to shape self-driving car adoption, research suggests

People who frequently hail rides from taxis or private drivers are likely to be the first adopters of self-driving vehicles, according to a recent study.

The research, which was sponsored by the ridesharing company Lyft, focused on four cities where Lyft is active and autonomous vehicles are being tested on public roads. A total of 3,275 people were surveyed in Boston, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and the Silicon Valley region. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute conducted the analysis of the survey results.

While 60 percent of respondents overall said they would be interested in using a driverless vehicle in some form, just four in 10 respondents who didn't use ride hailing services expressed this interest. The share increased to 60 percent among new users of these services and 75 percent among respondents who frequently hail a vehicle for their transportation needs.

The survey also suggested that riding in a self-driving vehicle was more likely to appeal to people between the ages of 18 and 34, as well as those considered to be middle income. Other groups with more interest in autonomous vehicles included those without children, those who did not own a vehicle or had just one vehicle for their household, and those who were very aware of self-driving vehicles.

"If you're one of those who lined up early on the first day that the iPhone 10 was available, whether you really needed one or not, you're more likely to be among the first people lining up to use a self-driving car," said Johanna Zmud, an author of the study. "Similarly, if you're a frequent TNC customer [transportation network company], you're more likely to be among the first who routinely use a self-driving car."

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute says the findings offer a good estimate of the size of the early market for autonomous vehicles, since those who hail rides are most likely to use a driverless vehicle. How these early adopters use self-driving vehicles could also shape how the technology is developed in the future.

About half of the survey's respondents said they would prefer to use a driverless vehicle as part of a ride hailing service. Forty percent said they would be in favor of using the vehicle as part of a vehicle sharing service.

Only one-third of the respondents said they would consider owning a self-driving vehicle for their transportation needs. The study noted how the sensors necessary to safely maneuver a driverless vehicle are likely to ramp up costs for individual ownership, but that this expense would be less onerous for companies that can maintain a fleet of vehicles. Self-driving vehicles may also be geographically limited when they are first introduced, making people less likely to purchase one. Zmud said it could also take several years of testing before autonomous vehicles can be deployed for widespread use.

"The competition to commercialize self-driving technologies must be balanced with the need to be completely satisfied—through robust research and testing—that the technologies are as foolproof as possible before their commercialization on public roadways," she said.

Lyft is currently among the companies testing autonomous vehicles, in Boston and Las Vegas. The app notifies users when a self-driving vehicle is available and allows them to use the vehicle to get to their destination. These rides are free of charge for the first phase of testing, and two trained people ride up front to take control of the vehicle if necessary.

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