Research Brief: Anxious? Let Your Self-Driving Car Talk You Down

An artistic rendering of Google's self-driving car Photograph by Google via AP Photo

In a new series, we look at intriguing research coming out of business schools. This week: how to get people to trust machines that do human tasks.

Study: The Mind in the Machine: Anthropomorphism Increases Trust in an Autonomous Vehicle
Authors: Adam Waytz, Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management; Joy Heafner, University of Connecticut; and Nicholas Epley, University of Chicago, Booth School of Business
Published: May 2014

Would you feel comfortable cruising around town in an impersonal, computer-controlled car? Might the ride be more enjoyable if the computer doing all the driving were to talk to you, like KITT, David Hasselhoff’s sentient car in the popular 1980s television series Knight Rider?

It’s a question worth considering, given that Google is working on a self-driving, 21st century version of KITT, and IBM has its whip-smart Watson computer (and Jeopardy! champ) already dishing out medical advice, working the help lines, and cooking up recipes.

The authors explain that they focused on “autonomous driving” as a proxy for our increasingly digital world: “Sophisticated machines now perform tasks that once required a thoughtful human mind, from grading essays to diagnosing cancer to driving a car.” As they correctly point out, even though engineers have overcome one technological hurdle after another, smart devices still face a further, perhaps bigger obstacle: our all-too-human reluctance to trust a machine with a task we routinely perform.

Using a driving simulator, the researchers tested how people reacted to several situations, including an unavoidable collision. Participants were asked to “drive” using the simulator, as they normally would—in full control of the steering and speed of the vehicle. Then they switched to “autonomous mode,” where the machine quietly did everything for them. In the final test, the driver sat back while the computer controlled the car, but this time the machine operating the vehicle spoke with a human voice and it had a name: Iris.

The results suggest that Google and IBM may want to borrow Iris. The researchers found that participants were more relaxed in the talking car and trusted it more than the one operating in stoic silence—even in an accident. The take-away for technologists: “Even the greatest technology, such as vehicles that drive themselves, is of little benefit if consumers are unwilling to use it.”

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