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Insights Why do we want to make autonomous design more human?

#InsideAtkinsRéalis recently met up with Aston, one of our rising Human Factors and Behavioral Science stars. Moving from a career in secondary education to one in human factors consultancy, she's always been passionate about making a positive difference in people's lives. In the first of Aston's two-part blog series , she talks to us about life at AtkinsRéalis and her work in connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs):

Photo of Aston smiling towards the camera

Hello Aston, first of all, what do you actually do?

I'm a senior human factors consultant within our customer and behavior team in transportation. My role involves helping clients think about people when designing new initiatives—be they new products, services, or systems—to be people-centered and evidence-based. In some cases, this means helping them think about how they can influence behaviors to achieve certain outcomes, including environmental or safety outcomes.

What's it like to be a woman in AtkinsRealis?

AtkinsRéalis has many initiatives to support women in career development and ensure equal opportunities. For example, our INSPIRE program is an externally provided training program specifically for women. It focuses on making the most of your career while still being yourself. I did the program a few years ago, and it helped me grow in confidence and set more ambitious goals. Our EMPOWER network, made up of men and women, also regularly holds events to support women in their careers.

We also have a flexible working culture that enables women to balance responsibilities inside and outside work. This also promotes wider systemic change. By offering flexible working to everyone, we challenge the historical norm that such responsibilities fall solely on women. It encourages male colleagues to use flexible working to support the women in their lives.

"We have so many great female role models in the organization. Seeing these women and their successes highlights the need to make sure that women have equal opportunities."
—Aston, Senior Human Factors Consultant, UK
Photo of Rebecca smiling towards the camera

You've been working on autonomous vehicles. How does human behavior shape their design?

Human error can contribute to road safety incidents, and people can prioritize other things over safety, such as arriving at a destination on time. This means that there are potential safety benefits in shifting control from humans to CAVs. Beyond safety, CAVs can also enhance accessibility and provide environmental gains. However, their successful adoption hinges on public acceptance, our understanding of the technology's capabilities and limitations, and how individuals interact with them within the broader transport system. We also need to ensure users can responsibly engage with CAVs, especially when required to take control of the vehicle with little warning.

Tell us a little about projects where you've explored the intersection of human behavior and autonomous vehicle design:

VENTURER and FLOURISH are two projects I was involved in that looked at integrating CAVs into the wider transport system from different perspectives. VENTURER focused on road users'’ reactions and the social acceptance of driverless cars, particularly testing the planned handover of control in vehicles with lower levels of autonomy. FLOURISH complemented this by investigating how to make CAVs accessible to older adults. We want to ensure inclusivity and confidence among those who may be less tech-savvy so we can address barriers to across-the-board adoption of autonomous technology.

What are some challenges your team could face on the journey to widespread adoption?

To make the most of CAVs’ safety benefits, we'’re looking beyond the technology itself and considering its interaction with the whole transport ecosystem. How will CAVs coexist with less advanced vehicles and non-automotive road users like pedestrians and cyclists? In the UK, where people see cars as essential and desirable, will CAVs have priority over other modes of transport? How will that affect the safety of more vulnerable road users? If you step in front of an autonomous vehicle, it will stop! So, could overconfidence in CAVs'’ safety features result in pedestrians becoming less careful, creating new safety challenges in towns and cities? How will all of this affect the environment—can we successfully encourage people to use more sustainable modes of transport in a world with CAVs ?

Why join AtkinsRéalis' human factors team?

Our approach integrates social research, human factors , and behavioral science, ensuring people are central to our solutions—and clients are starting to really see the value. We have a number of exciting projects on the horizon across a variety of clients–from conducting research to understand transport users’ needs and perspectives, designing new transport products and services (including road design, new mobility modes, and technologies)—and evaluating the success of new initiatives!

Read Part 2 of Aston's blog series, which explores how she places human nature at the heart of road safety innovation.