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Survey of riders on UM driverless shuttle shows vast majority trusted it

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Despite national studies indicating weak public sentiment toward autonomous vehicles, 86% of riders of the University of Michigan's Mcity driverless shuttles said they trusted the technology after their trips.

Two fully automatic 11-passenger shuttles operated a fixed route around UM's North Campus in from June 2018 through December 2019, carrying students faculty and staff on a one-mile loop from parking and a bus stop at an average speed of 10 mph.

The initiative launched as consumer trust in automated vehicles was declining following two fatal crashes involving partially automated vehicles in Arizona and California.

Results of a user survey were published Thursday in an 11-page white paper in collaboration with research firm J.D. Power.

A survey of riders of Mcity's driverless shuttle found 86% said they trusted the autonomous technology. The vehicle ran from June 2018 to December 2019.

"That the Mcity Driverless Shuttle research project resulted in high levels of consumer satisfaction and trust among riders, in spite of declining satisfaction with AVs nationally, underscores the importance of robust preparation and oversight to ensure a safe deployment that will build consumer confidence," Huei Peng, director of Mcity, a public-private automated vehicle research center at U-M, said in a statement.

AAA in March released survey results showing only 12% of U.S. drivers would trust riding in a self-driving vehicle.

French firm Navya manufactured the electric shuttles. For safety precautions, the project did utilize safety conductors who manually resumed operations after the shuttle automatically stopped at certain intersections.

Through December 2019, 6,000 passengers rode the vehicles, with 318 responding to the survey along with 60 non-riders, including pedestrians, bicyclists and other vehicle drivers. Of those nonriders, 66% said they trusted the shuttles.

Of the respondents, 97% said they were aware that the shuttle was fully automated, and 86% of riders rode it once. For 47% of riders, it replaced pedestrian transportation mostly in the afternoon with passengers citing an interest in autonomous vehicles and general curiosity. Riders on average rated the experience 7.87 of 10, and three-quarters said they would be willing to ride the shuttle again.

Passengers said the slow speed, inconsistent stops and the shuttle being too cautious at intersections were areas for improvement. The human safety conductors never were called to act in a situation when the shuttle failed to do so, according to the report, but conductors regularly did stop the shuttle manually based on the environment around them such as when pedestrians were waiting to cross the street.

The shuttles are no longer in operation. U-M donated one of the two vehicles to The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, and it is currently onsite.

The report also emphasized the importance of extensive training for conductors, clear safety protocols and daily communications among those involved in the project along with the community at large to educate and encourage participation. The writers conclude autonomous shuttle should provide a practical transportation alternative that happens to be automated rather than the other way around.

"Researching consumer interaction with the Mcity Driverless Shuttle emphasized the critical importance that experience brings to building trust with automated vehicle technology," Kristin Kolodge, executive director of driver interaction and human machine interface at J.D. Power, said in a statement. "The skepticism and hesitancy consumers felt prior to riding the shuttle was diminished by many through a positive experience."

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble