Autonomous transports

How do we get to transportation heaven?

​A future with shared rides, in autonomous and electrified vehicles, would be a dream come true. But how do we get there? With her research about this, Sigma Dolins was awarded third prize in the EARPA Young Researchers Pitch Competition.
Sigma Dolins is a doctoral student associated to Chalmers University of Technology, Keolis and RISE, Research Institutes of Sweden. In her work, she is looking into cultural and societal factors that may facilitate – or hinder – the development towards shared transportation.
“New forms of mobility, like electric and autonomous vehicles, can merge with ride sharing to an evolved form of transportation. One day electric, autonomous, connected, on-demand vehicles can take us to a magical place; transportation heaven!”, she says.

Best of all: social cohesion

In “transportation heaven”, there are less emissions, fewer accidents and less vehicles on the roads. We can book any type of vehicle from one single app, and spend less time and money on travel. But to Sigma Dolins, the best goal of all is perhaps social cohesion.
“If everyone had access to good, safe transportation, if owning a car wasn’t a reflection of personal wealth or identity… if we shared ten-fifteen minute journeys with people who don’t look exactly like us, but still live in our neighborhood… I think that would create interesting and beneficial changes to society”, she says.
But it is not an easy shift to make.
“We cannot talk about autonomous vehicles as a desirable consumer product, instead we need to understand how to redefine for people what public transport is and could be. That means changing how we, as a society, interact with mobility.”

Cultural factors affect willingness to share

Sigma Dolins is now, together with a colleague at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, looking at shared autonomous vehicles as a socio-technical system. They are working on a multinational, longitudinal study that focuses on cultural factors that affect our willingness to share. The aim is to create an index for understanding societal attitudes towards mobility, sharing and autonomous vehicles. The index will be both descriptive and prescriptive; what policies, services or measures are needed to change attitudes?

Fear of strangers a hinder

The main obstacle when trying to get people to share rides is, in the opinion of Sigma Dolins, that people are actually afraid of each other.
“Right now, we don’t have a culture of how to behave inside a small space with strangers. The closest approximation is an elevator – usually people are totally silent and the ride lasts less than a minute. Price is the easiest and right now most effective way to get people to try sharing. I think a combination of price and ubiquity will be key to success”, she says, and continues:
“My early thoughts are that culture definitely influences perceptions of privacy and public space. Asian countries tend to think differently about privacy, and so crowded public areas – pre Covid-19 – were considered very normal. Sharing with strangers was done out of necessity and thus normalized. But these also tended to be families and households that didn’t grow up with a private car. Part of my investigation is to see how many people grew up with a family car and how much that ingrains these behaviours later in life.”

Important to communicate

The EARPA Young Researchers Competition was a way of getting exposure to industry, but more than anything it was an opportunity to get feedback and sharpen the presentation technique, Sigma Dolins explains.
“I think it’s important for more PhD students to get these kinds of opportunities. The “butterflies in stomach” feeling is awful, so I know why a lot of students avoid it. But communicating our science is 49% of the battle of doing the science!”

Text: Mia Malmstedt
Photo: iStock and Birger Löfgren, RISE


Published: Thu 05 Nov 2020.