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Here's what people say they would need to feel safe with driverless cars on B.C. streets.

A stock photo of a self-driving car. (File) A stock photo of a self-driving car. (File)

New research shows what people in B.C. say they would need to feel safe sharing the road with self-driving cars – and having a human behind the wheel is high on the list.

The project out of the University of British Columbia's Research on Active Transportation Lab first set out to see how people perceived the impact of self-driving cars on pedestrian safety and comfort and how that could shape policy.

Gurdiljot Gill, the PhD candidate who conducted the study, says subjects were shown videos, one series with human-driven cars and another with self-driving cars.

Forty-one per cent perceived the scenarios with the autonomous vehicles as less safe or less comfortable for pedestrians.

But there was a twist.

"The videos are the same," Gill told CTV News, explaining that the perception of increased danger or discomfort could therefore be chalked up to skepticism about or bias against driverless cars.

“People who harbour anxiety or discomfort regarding new technology were more likely to hold a negative bias against SDVs. Similarly, residents in the Lower Mainland tended to adopt a more critical viewpoint, likely because there are more pedestrians in this urban region,” Gill wrote in a news release describing the results of the research.

Thirty-five per cent of participants assessed the scenarios with the self-driving cars as safer, while 25 per cent didn’t see a difference.

Although perceptions of safety varied, the research did find that some specific regulations were favoured by the vast majority of participants. Nine out of 10 said they would need the vehicles to be clearly labelled in order to feel safe and comfortable having them on the road.

The same percentage said these cars should have people behind the wheel in case of an emergency.

"People are used to seeing this human presence behind the windshield. So, if there is no human presence, people might feel very uncomfortable," Gill said.

These two recommendations topped the list of what people said would help increase confidence and comfort in sharing the road.

Other recommendations included gradually introducing these cars to the roads and limiting where they are allowed to areas that are not densely populated by pedestrians.

One of the reasons Gill said this research was important was because it looked at the issue from a perspective distinct from that of manufacturers or users of the technology.

"We are trying to tell the story of this general public, especially the people who won't be using these vehicles but who need to interact with them," Gill said.

The full study has been published online; Top Stories

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