Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Self-Driving Vehicles and Child Passenger Safety

July 9, 2019

When most people imagine using autonomous vehicles (AVs), they tend to envision scenarios, such as daily commutes, which entail a single adult passenger who is licensed to drive and fully capable of taking over control of the vehicle. However, several proponents of AVs believe they have the potential to dramatically improve quality of life for adults with mobility challenges, such as those with physical disabilities and seniors who no longer drive. A few people have pointed out that if AVs can transport those populations, they could also be used to transport children who may not be physically or cognitively capable of taking over control of a vehicle.

CIRP driving simulator autonomous mode
simulated autonomous mode with back seat

With funding provided by the Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies (CChIPS), my research team recently published a study in Human Factors, the Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES), that shares what factors come into play when parents decide whether or not to allow their children to ride unaccompanied in an AV. For this exploratory study, we had 19 parents of children ages 8 to 16 ride in a driving simulator in autonomous mode.

The parents, who were all licensed, first used the simulator in manual mode then "rode" the same trip in reverse with the simulator in autonomous mode. We also had some of their children experience the second trip only, separately from their parents, while seated in a simulated back seat (pictured above).

After the simulator sessions, we interviewed the parents and children separately and asked:

  • What was your level of comfort during the ride in autonomous mode?
  • What types of trips (to/from) do you envision having your unaccompanied children make in an AV?

We also asked only the parents:

  • Would you be comfortable using an AV alone?
  • Would you be comfortable using an AV with your children riding along?
  • Would you be comfortable having your child ride alone in an AV?

Focus groups were then conducted to gauge the minimum age parents thought it appropriate for a child to be left home alone; to use public transportation alone; to take a taxi alone; and to ride in an AV alone. We also asked the parent groups 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.

KEY RESULTS

Although the study included many interesting findings, here are key points I would like to share:

  • 63 percent of parents indicated that they would feel comfortable driving a car with autonomous features either alone or with their child in the car. However, only 21 percent said they would be comfortable allowing their child to ride alone in an AV. 
  • When asked which method they would prefer to use to transport a child, 58 percent of the parents said public transportation, 26 percent said an AV, 11 percent said a taxi, and 5 percent said none of the options would be acceptable.
  • Parents agreed that maturity and ability to make good decisions under stress are more important than chronological age when asked about the minimum age to stay home alone, ride in a taxi alone, ride public transportation alone, and ride in an AV alone.
  • Two parents in different focus groups indicated that they would not be comfortable allowing an unaccompanied child to ride in an AV without supportive societal infrastructure, such as a ground version of air traffic control and previously-designated safe-havens where an AV would go if something prevented it from delivering a child to the originally-specified destination.
  • 57 percent of the children surveyed said that they would feel safest riding in an AV as compared to public transportation or a taxi. 

While our study was exploratory, and had a relatively small sample size, we believe that our results should be used to guide additional research efforts that will enable society to better prepare for unaccompanied child passengers in AVs. This research can be used to inform both vehicle design and the development of regulations, policies and societal infrastructure to enable safe child transport via AVs.

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