Pioneering project on the traffic of the future

How do pedestrians react to automated vehicles?

Empa, together with EBP and Fussverkehr Schweiz, analyzed in spring 2022 in Thalwil (ZH) how pedestrians react to automated vehicles. The automated parking assistant that had been used is the first system approved in Switzerland that moves a vehicle without a person sitting in it. The findings of the research project, which was co-financed by AXA's Foundation for Prevention, create an important basis for prevention measures and design principles for sustainable road spaces.
Focus on the interaction between pedestrians and driverless cars: Empa researchers at the pilot study in Thalwil. Picture: Empa

Automated driving will shape everyday urban mobility in the future. However, many questions are still open, such as how pedestrians will react to automated vehicles and how a sustainable and safe mobility system can be designed for all road users. The research project "Pedestrians and Automated Driving" provides initial answers and opens up the dialog on interaction between automated vehicles and pedestrians, which is crucial for the future.

In this first phase of the project, field studies were conducted on two test days in Thalwil to determine how pedestrians react to an automated vehicle in real-life situations. To this end, parking situations were carried out with a vehicle equipped with a parking assistant. Empa experts contributed their in-depth knowhow about vehicle technology to this social science pilot study. "Safety was of central importance in the field studies. Our research team ensured that the vehicle was properly equipped and also operated correctly," explains Empa researcher Miriam Elser. Also involved in the field studies was project manager Bettina Zahnd from EBP Switzerland: "What we noticed already on the first day of the trial is that many people react to the driverless vehicle and look for eye contact with a person who is in control of the car." This finding was confirmed in the interviews: Almost 70% of the interviewees recognized the driverless car and 60% of the interviewees saw or actively looked for the person in charge.

The reactions of the passers-by varied depending on their age. For example, older passers-by sought eye contact with a responsible person more often than younger people did. In addition, older people were more wary of the new technology, whereas younger people assume that the technology works or it hardly impresses them. The results further point to a knowledge gap in the population: For only about 20% of respondents, the topic of "automated driving" was not entirely new. Many people are not yet aware that driverless technologies are already approved in Switzerland. The project team recommends, for example, an information campaign as a possible measure to raise public awareness of the topic.

Also of interest: Roughly the same number of people are neutral/positive as negative about automated vehicles. It is clear that automated vehicles will play an increasingly important role in Swiss traffic in the future and that the discourse about this must be stimulated already today.


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