future concept of car interior

Manufacturers, policy makers or consumers: Who is driving the demand for autonomous, connected, electric and shared (ACES) transport and mobility?

By Professor Stewart Birrell

Major global events such as the recent Covid-19 pandemic and the ever-present threat of climate change will inevitably lead us to reconsider our relationship with the automobile.

A term called ‘ACES’ (Autonomous, Connected, Electric and Shared transport and mobility) has become increasingly popular and is a major driver of policy and technology development within the automotive sector. However, recent events might lead us to consider whether we still value the traditional view of a vehicle, even if it is enhanced with ACES technology.

In this article we try and consider how actual end users, namely real people, might use future ACES transport and mobility in this ever changing world – this is what we call Human Factors.

Starting off with the Autonomous aspect, it is my long held belief that – whilst the technology is coming to market whether the majority of real car drivers actually want it or not – autonomous vehicles are being driven by a ‘Technology Push’ rather than a ‘Consumer Pull’. In other words, car (and software) companies are developing the technology and putting it out there, with little real demand from the end user (apart from a few early adopters of the Tesla ‘Autopilot’ system).

There are possible benefits, as the average driver spends 235 hours (or 6 working weeks) a year behind the wheel, and in the US traffic congestion alone is equivalent to $100bn in wasted fuel and lost productivity. Miraculously this could all be reclaimed if that driver were in a self-driving car, assuming they are working and not watching TikTok videos. Which brings me on to the elephant in the room with autonomous cars – hands up if you get motion sick, I do, as do around 60% of the population – but let us keep the elephant in its place for now.

Connected vehicles have been offering increasing benefits to the driver for the past 10 years, a process that started with Smartphones being able to connect for media streaming and calls. With the advent of 5G we can now download a HD movie in less than 10 seconds in our car! However, there are more useful applications enabled by high speed, low latency 5G such as Vehicle to Everything (V2X) communications or remote supervision of driverless ‘Pods’. As highlighted by the recent shift in working environments, 5G also gives the ability to conduct meetings remotely, unearthing the outdated notion for everyone to rush into a city centre at 9am to sit with colleagues in a hermetically sealed box. However, security and privacy issues are a key stumbling-block with users unsure where their data will be sent, saved, or who it will be used by. Innovative projects like Secure-CAV aim to develop solutions around cyber security and privacy for the connected car.

To me, there is only one downside to Electrified transport from the user’s perspective. Initially when Electric Vehicles (EVs) were released users experienced range anxiety as early EVs were limited to around 90 miles of range, with my own research showing this reduced to around 60 miles if you used the AC or drove vaguely progressively. After range, we had charging anxiety where users would be nervous about finding somewhere to charge their vehicle, which is mitigated by 95% of charging activities being conducted at home or work. As well as innovation in battery technology leading to longer ranges, and new solutions like Coventry University’s contribution to the UK government’s Wireless Charging of Electric Taxis (WiCET) project. The one major downside, which hasn’t gone away, is cost anxiety. Not only of the initial purchase price (for example a new e-Golf is around £5,000 more than an equivalent petrol version), or the potential cost to replace batteries after 8-10 years, but now we have anxiety about how the cost of electricity might actually increase to match demand in EV charging.

Shared transport is an interesting challenge. One car on the road, even if it is self-driving and electric, is still one car and we won’t see major benefits to congestion and capacity without our transport being shared.

In the current pandemic UK Government advice is to minimise public transport use, which is our only means of shared mass transit. Air purifiers within vehicles have been popular in China since mid-2010s, with premium vehicles implementing the Panasonic nanoe. Design research at Coventry University is aiming to understand the emerging balance between comfort with hygiene where plastic, clinical seating may be preferred over softer more ‘comfortable’ fabric seating due to its utility and ease of cleaning. Understanding factors affecting user confidence and trust in shared transport relating to hygiene, personal wellbeing and health in a post Covid-19 world is a key issue for Human Factors researchers in order to continue to deliver the benefits of shared mobility.

Our research as Human Factors experts and Transport Designers needs to adapt to address these future challenges and at Coventry University’s National Transport Design Centre (ntdc) we are exploring solutions for a variety of future mobility challenges, built around the needs of the user. There will be a point when life returns to normal, but what that new normal looks like for ACES transport is yet to be fully defined.

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Tomas Allum