In the future, will caregivers be inclined to utilize the convenience of autonomous vehicles to transport their children independently to their many activities? What will happen if children, who are not cognitively capable of taking over control of a vehicle in an emergency, ride alone? And, what assurances will there be that unaccompanied children will be cared for properly at their destination or after a traffic incident?
Although the fully autonomous future is years away, and little is known about the potential child occupant protection features of these future AVs, researchers have begun to explore parental attitudes toward allowing AVs to transport unaccompanied minors. While attitudes are likely to evolve as the actualities of the AV future come into focus and the pubic grows more familiar with the technology, a couple of studies provide insight into current thinking.
In 2018, researchers Hand and Lee presented results at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society annual meeting of an online survey of 1,335 people. The survey asked respondents whether they were parents and about their prior knowledge of AVs, current use of manual (non-AV) vehicles, willingness to use AVs to transport children, and opinions on how necessary certain features will be in the AVs that transport unaccompanied children.
Overall, respondents were generally either strongly against or very hesitant to place unaccompanied children in AVs. Forty-two percent answered, “I would never use an autonomous vehicle to transport my child without an adult in the car,” with only 7% answering, “I would definitely use an autonomous vehicle to transport my child without an adult in the car.”
Women were less willing than men to transport children using AVs (with or without adults); 11% of males said they “would definitely” put their child in an AV, compared to 3% of women. When attitudes of parents versus nonparents were compared, 5% of parents versus 9% of nonparents “would definitely” utilize AVs to transport a child alone, and 37% of nonparents “would never” do so, compared to 45% of parents.
The researchers also looked at how the number of children in a household affected participants’ willingness to transport them in AVs. They found that, while little difference existed between people with one child and those with no children, participants with two or more children were significantly more hesitant or unwilling to transport them in AVs.
The Hand and Lee study referenced previous studies that found a correlation between familiarity with AVs and a favorable attitude, and the researchers, therefore, urged manufacturers to engage in efforts to educate consumers with children about AVs.
A more recent study, by Tremoulet, et al., published in the journal Human Factors, explored similar questions about comfort level and asked parents to imagine what factors they’ll take into account when deciding whether to allow their children to ride unaccompanied in an AV.
This study engaged 19 parents of children ages 8 to 16. To gain insight into what riding in an autonomous vehicle will be like, the parents rode in a driving simulator in manual (non-AV) mode and then took the same trip back with the simulator in autonomous mode. Some of their children also took the autonomous leg of the trip, separately from their parents, while seated in a simulated back seat.
After the simulator sessions, the parents and children were interviewed separately about their level of comfort during the autonomous ride and about what types of trips a child might make unaccompanied. The parents were asked to indicate their comfort level in AVs in three situations: alone, with their children, and their child riding alone.
Focus groups were also conducted to gauge the minimum age parents thought was appropriate for a child to be alone when at home, using public transportation, taking a taxi, and riding in an AV. Parent groups were also asked what types of safety features they would require before allowing their children to ride unaccompanied in an AV and what other considerations they would take into account.
The researchers reported their key findings:
- Sixty-three percent of parents indicated that they would feel comfortable driving a car with autonomous features either alone or with their child in the car. But only 21% said they would be comfortable allowing their child to ride alone in an AV.
- Fifty-seven percent of the children surveyed said that they would feel safest riding alone in an AV, as compared to public transportation or a taxi.
- When asked which method they would prefer to use to transport a child, 58% of the parents said public transportation, 26% said an AV, 11% said a taxi, and 5% said none of the options would be acceptable.
- When asked about the minimum age a child should be to ride alone in an AV, parents agreed that being mature and having the ability to make good decisions under stress are more important than chronological age. (This opinion was similar to attitudes regarding when it’s okay to do other solo activities, like stay home, ride in a taxi, or ride public transportation.)
Hand, et al. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1541931218621059
Tremoulet, PD, et al. “Transporting Children in Autonomous Vehicles: An Exploratory Study.” Human Factors. 2019:18720819853993.