Fake Driverless Car Reveals Real Driver Concerns: Communication is Key

A mysterious van was spotted driving itself around a busy commercial district near my home recently. Someone called the police saying the unmanned vehicle ran a red light. A local NBC News reporter eventually caught up to it and discovered a hidden motorist at the wheel. He was camouflaged as an empty seat to trick people into thinking nobody was driving.

This bizarre experiment was staged by Virginia Tech students secretly filming public reaction to seeing a self-driving car on the road. It shouldn’t take such a stunt, however, to predict how some people will respond when fully autonomous vehicles mix in with traditional cars and trucks, cyclists and pedestrians on public roads. While many will be excited and supportive, for others it will create varying degrees of hesitation, confusion and fear—even anger.

Adam Tuss Tweet

Via @AdamTuss

Prior to learning it was not really a driverless car, comments posted on local news site ARLNow.com included:

  • Not okay, not alright. Go test that out on someone else’s flesh and bones.”
  • “I wonder how well protected these autonomous vehicles will be from hacking. EVERYTHING can be hacked these days.”

Beyond such anecdotes, Kelley Blue Book conducted a consumer survey last year and found:

  • 51% said, “I prefer to have full control of my vehicle, even if it’s not a safe for other drivers.”
  • 37% said, “Roadways would be safer if all vehicles were operated by people.”

Self-driving technology may well be ready for the public before the public is ready for it. Despite myriad societal benefits, the transition to fully autonomous cars and trucks will neither be easy, nor perfect—public education and expectation setting will be vital. Automakers, technology suppliers, regulators, the health and safety community, and other stakeholders are beginning to prep the public, with a lot more work ahead. Message consistency will be key:

  • Self-driving vehicles are not yet road ready for full autonomous mode … but underlying safety technologies are and consumers should embrace them. From blind spot detection and adaptive cruise control, to automatic emergency braking and lane keeping assist, newer cars and trucks offer a growing list of advanced technologies to boost safety right now.
  • Self-driving vehicles will save lives … lots of lives. More than 30,000 people die annually in roadway crashes, of which nearly all are caused by human error. Technology can greatly reduce crashes and the toll they take on human life and our economy.
  • Self-driving technology must be deployed quickly … but safely. While deployment of driverless technologies should not occur until they are proven to be as safe or safer than the status quo, the longer their use is delayed, the more people will be hurt and killed in preventable crashes.
  • Self-driving vehicles offer incredible societal benefits … but there will be downsides. Countless lives saved, mobility freedom for people with physical and mental challenges and untold more societal benefits likely await.  However, public expectations must be set appropriately: technology is not flawless and there will still be loss of life (but hopefully at greatly reduced rates). Ride sharing, taxi and trucking jobs will also be affected. We need honest dialogue about the relative risks and overarching rewards to prevent backlash that otherwise could hamper deployment.

Self-driving cars and trucks promise to revolutionize how we live, work and play. The road to get there, however, is not yet fully mapped. There will be barriers, the biggest of which might not be the technology itself—it might just be us. If we want autonomous technology to be accepted and embraced for a better tomorrow, more communication is needed today.

John F. Fitzpatrick co-manages Stratacomm, a strategic communications consultancy based in D.C. and Detroit. He leads the firm’s Transportation Practice Group. Full disclosure:  Stratacomm represents the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, regulating highway safety and educating consumers about vehicle safety technologies; the firm also represents Nissan North America, a leader in pioneering autonomous vehicles.

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