Published on 23 Aug 2023

What shapes our views of self-driving vehicles

Prof Shirley Ho investigates how public support is key to rolling out driverless technology.

Human error accounts for most road traffic accidents. Using autonomous vehicles (AVs) can potentially eliminate the risk of such error as they rely on machine intelligence instead of human drivers. This could reduce the number of road accidents, alleviate traffic congestion and improve overall traffic efficiency.

However, public support is crucial for the implementation of self-driving vehicles. 

Given my expertise in science communication and public opinion towards emerging technologies, my research team and I conducted studies to investigate the social-psychological factors that shape public willingness to use AV technology.


To find out what motivates a person’s willingness to use AVs in Singapore, we conducted an online survey with about 1,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents in 2018. Based on the statements presented in the survey, respondents were asked to indicate their level of agreement on a scale of one to five, from strongly disagree to strongly agree.

Our survey showed that, on average, people were somewhat inclined to use AVs but this willingness was not strong. This middling response suggested that even if AVs were implemented in Singapore, they would unlikely be widely used.

We also examined people’s perceptions of the risks and benefits of AVs, which could influence their disposition to using AVs. Again, based on the statements presented in the survey, respondents were told to pick along a scale of one to five, from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Respondents believed that the risks associated with using AVs outweighed the benefits (see graph).

Figure 1: How people view the risks and benefits of using driverless vehicles. About 1,000 people in Singapore were polled on their perceptions, which were measured from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Another interesting finding was that people’s general scientific knowledge and literacy did not significantly affect their inclination to use AVs. Instead, they relied on factors such as their emotions to drive their decisions on complex issues like the use of AVs. This in turn affected their willingness to use AVs. Other factors, like people’s deference to the views of scientists and attention to media, also had an effect.


Understanding the factors that make AV messages more persuasive can help improve public opinion on the vehicles’ roll-out. So, we conducted an online experiment using different AV blog posts.

Messages such as blog posts often utilise “framing” – the way a subject or an issue is presented. This can either be favourable or unfavourable. When a message has more than one frame, these frames can complement or contradict one another.

We found that complementary frames resulted in stronger attitudes and support towards AVs, and contradictory frames resulted in more neutral views. Messages focusing on safety also had a stronger effect than messages focusing on the economy.

However, framing effects on attitudes do not last and are easily challenged by new information. Sometimes, conflicting information can lead to a situation known as “cognitive dissonance”. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort people feel when new beliefs contradict existing ones. One beneficial strategy people use to reduce cognitive dissonance is to change their minds rather than ignore new information.

Thus, communication strategies regarding AVs should not focus on being the first to put out information, but instead focus on continuously feeding small pieces of new information to the public. This can help lower instances of cognitive dissonance.


I also recognised the importance of reaching out to people who face greater barriers to mobility when it comes to AVs. With this in mind, my graduate student, Tan Wenqi, and I sought to find out what parents with young children, older adults, and people with ambulatory disabilities thought about autonomous public transport in Singapore. We conducted nine focus group discussions with 60 people from these communities from February to March 2022.

Overall, participants said it was important for them to be able to easily access communication channels that address their concerns about autonomous public transport, prove the safety and reliability of the technology, and include a diverse range of commuters. This will be an important next step in my research as it helps us keep in mind what the public thinks and feels about AVs, and how to best communicate relevant information to the public.

I am excited to lead a new project that seeks to do just this called “Achieving public Trust in AI in autoNomous vehicles in SinGapore (ATTAIN*SG)”. This new project is funded by AI Singapore, a national programme supported by Singapore’s National Research Foundation.

By Prof Shirley Ho

Prof Shirley Ho is President’s Chair Professor in Communication Studies at NTU. She is also the University’s Associate Vice President (Humanities, Social Sciences & Research Communication). Her research focuses on cross-cultural public opinion dynamics related to science and technology, with potential health or environmental impacts.

More details of her research can be found in International Journal of Public Opinion Research (2021), DOI: 10.1093/ijpor/edab001; and Transportation Research Part F (2020), DOI: 10.1016/j.trf.2020.03.019.

The article appeared first in NTU's research and innovation magazine Pushing Frontiers (issue #21, December 2022).