Nowadays, it is possible for intelligent machines to perform tasks that used to require human competence, such as driving a car. As autopilots take over this job in autonomous vehicles, customers have to give up responsibility and rely on the abilities of the autopilot. Only if these abilities are considered to be sufficient, customers will perceive the ride as a satisfactory service encounter. Previous research has shown that endowing a technological service with an automated social presence (ASP), which "makes customers feel the presence of another social entity" (van Doorn et al., 2017, p. 43), can increase competence perceptions.
However, little is known about the optimal design of an ASP. In the context of autonomous driving, nationality attributed to the ASP could play a role. When people visit a foreign country, they tend to expect a local to know his or her way around town better than a stranger. Based on role theory, we hypothesize for autonomous vehicle usage that an autopilot that is presented as a local (vs. a stranger) increases competence perceptions, which in turn fosters customer’s satisfaction with the autonomous driving service.
A preliminary study is conducted to test this hypothesis. It is a scenario-based online experiment, based on a one-factorial between-subjects design, manipulating the nationality of the ASP (local vs. non-local autopilot) in an autonomous driving context. ANOVAs with the experimental factor nationality of the ASP as the independent variable and satisfaction with the service and perceived competence as dependent variables were performed. Results support that subjects in the local autopilot condition are more satisfied with the service (Mlocal= 6.33 / Mnon-local= 5.46, F [1,56] = 6.07, p = .017, η² = .10) and perceive the autopilot as more competent, compared to the non-local autopilot condition (Mlocal= 5.15 / Mnon‑local= 4.36, F [1,56] = 4.30, p = .043, η² = .07). A mediation analysis (Process tool, model 4) confirms a full mediation through perceived competence, as indicated by the indirect effect being positive and significant, with the 95% confidence interval excluding zero (b = .69, SE = .33, CI = [.06, 1.39]).
This research makes three contributions to the service literature. First, it enhances knowledge on ASP, by examining nationality as a relevant facet of this construct. Further, we confirm that attributing a local identity to an ASP increases satisfaction with the service. Second, this research examines the role of competence perceptions as the theoretical anchor for the positive effect of ASP on satisfaction. Third, we enhance knowledge of role theory in the context of technological service research.