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Technology The shift to a self-driving, electric future may not be quite so automatic

A man plugs a charging device into an Opel Grandland X Hybrid 4 car in Ruesselsheim, Germany, on June 4, 2019.

RALPH ORLOWSKI/Reuters

Talk to executives at almost any automaker about the future of mobility and they’re likely to use the acronym “ACES.” Transportation in the near future, they say, will be autonomous, connected, electric and shared.

It’s a utopian vision very different from the current reality, which prompts the question: Just how realistic is it?

Perhaps not very, according to surveys and experts who aren’t necessarily interested in selling that future. While there are good reasons to believe that some parts of ACES may come to be, there’s also room for doubt because people aren’t necessarily logical when it comes to getting around.

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“We’ve always operated on this premise that this decision is rational, that people make a comparison of what are the alternatives that are available to them and they have a sense of what the costs and conveniences are,” says Jeff Casello, an engineering professor at the University of Waterloo who specializes in transportation modelling.

“What we’ve learned is that it probably isn’t true. There are a whole lot of things that go into that decision-making that are hard to quantify.”

Recent surveys suggest one reason for resistance is fear.

About 71 per cent of respondents to a poll this year by the American Automobile Association, for example, said they aren’t sure whether to trust self-driving vehicles, an increase from 63 per cent in 2017.

AAA attributes the rising distrust to recent well-publicized accidents involving self-driving Uber and Tesla cars, which killed a pedestrian and driver, respectively.

The poll results highlight the selectiveness of rationality and how people can easily overlook contradictory facts. More than 40,000 people were killed in U.S. traffic fatalities last year, for example, with more than 90 per cent the result of human error, according to the U.S. National Safety Council. Many experts believe autonomous vehicles will be far safer than human-driven cars.

Respondents to Deloitte’s annual automotive survey, meanwhile, suggest more sources of resistance to new mobility technologies, which may include electric and self-driving cars, buses and cabs, ride-hailing services, bike-sharing services – anything that helps people get around.

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The majority said they were interested in electric and connected cars, but were generally unwilling to pay more for them. Interest in shared services, such as Uber and microbuses, also appears to be declining. Only about 12 per cent of consumers are regularly using ride-hailing this year, compared with 23 per cent in 2017, according to the survey.

Inertia, or the average person’s unlikeliness to change their routine, especially if it’s already working, is a big factor here.

Most people figure out a way to get around daily, whether it’s through driving, public transit or other options, and stick with a predictable routine they can more or less rely on. Asking them to change that routine, even with the promise of something better, is difficult to do.

“If I wake up and what I did yesterday worked for me, there’s very little appetite for me to allocate any sort of energy to considering what today’s alternatives are,” Casello says. “If it worked yesterday, it’ll work today and I’m just going to continue down that same path.”

Auto makers pushing self-driving vehicles are also suggesting that drivers and commuters will have to give up a degree of control over their mobility, which is likely to be another source of resistance.

That control is linked to decision making, where an individual is able to choose transportation options with reasonable expectations of how long it will take to arrive at a destination. If something goes awry, the driver or commuter can make adjustments and take alternative routes.

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This may not be the case in a self-driving vehicle and even less so in one that is shared with other people, like a bus. Casello says this is why some people get anxious or even angry on planes – the lack of control and flexibility can be unsettling and problematic.

For working-class people in particular, that lack of flexibility can pose a bigger problem.

“If I’m a CEO of a company. I probably have pretty good flexibility in when I arrive some place or stay in touch while I’m in transit,” he says. “If I work at the Walmart and I punch in every day at 7:59 and I don’t get paid until I do, then I have much less flexibility for those things. The tolerance for failure of mobility as a service is different based on your income level.”

Then there’s the fact that some people just plain love driving. Rob McAuley, president of the Toronto Autosport Club, says self-driving, electrification and related technologies may eventually catch on with most people, but there will always be a sizable number who want to stick with the old ways.

“Whether you’re going to a race track or a cottage or whatever, you want to find some majestic roads and have some fun,” he says.

Auto makers and governments that want to push ACES thus have their work cut out for them. For their part, they say the benefits of the technologies will ultimately sell themselves and win people over.

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“The market will give the answer,” said Elmar Frickenstein, senior vice-president of automated driving at BMW. “After a stressful week at work, people [will want to] say to the car, ‘Can you drive me home?’”

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