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Beyond buzzwords: automation requires consumer education

Karla Jakeman argues the need for a bigger focus on language and marketing of automated vehicles

Automated vehicles are a hot topic both inside and outside the connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV) industry. Many vehicle manufacturers are working on bringing automated vehicles to the commercial market, and as such, the wider public is hearing about their capabilities and possible applications for the first time. Although fully autonomous vehicles are not yet within reach of consumers, the invention of autonomous features and their installation in new vehicles brings alongside itself marketing campaigns targeting drivers looking for new vehicles. Buzzwords like “self-driving”, “automated”, “autopilot”, and “hands-free” are popping up everywhere—but when asked about their meaning, most consumers admit they do not understand them.

Automotive World Magazine – May 2023

While the industry becomes increasingly automated, it is essential that CAV consumers understand the capabilities of automated vehicles and how they differ from traditional vehicles. The industry must work to ensure that the public is aware of not only the studied safety and reliability of automated vehicles, but also what different marketing buzzwords mean, what the capabilities of the vehicle truly are, and what to expect when operating one, because, unfortunately, automated cars today are completely misunderstood.

What are automated cars, really?

The general public and those not directly involved in the automation industry believe that automated cars are vehicles where they can open the door, sit down, and be driven where they want to go by the vehicle itself, without having to do anything. This is the future players are working towards, but in truth, remain a long way from this dream becoming a reality.

Cadillac Super Cruise
Cadillac claims to have more than 34 million hands-free miles driven with its Super Cruise assistance system

As automation stands today, even in those vehicles advertised as having autopilot capabilities, drivers need to be alert and able to take back control of the vehicle at any point. There are times where a vehicle will encounter a situation it will not know how to tackle, and it will immediately warn the driver to take over, and that needs to be done within a split second. This technology is not a new thing or a faraway sci-fi dream—it’s derived from adaptive cruise control, which alerts the driver to intervene when the vehicle needs help, and most new vehicles are outfitted with this feature, even though their owners would not consider their car to be an autonomous vehicle.

All this is not to say that automated vehicles aren’t worth the hype. Fully autonomous vehicles will offer never-seen-before independence to people with disabilities, the elderly, and those without drivers’ licenses. They will optimise traffic, reduce the numbers of accidents on roads, and contribute towards Net Zero.

It is very important to note how, despite the lack of availability of autonomous commercial vehicles, many people have already formed strong and often negative opinions around them—even though they have never come into contact with one. Researchers and manufacturers know they won’t be able to get the public to form a non-apprehensive opinion of automated vehicles until they are able to experience one, highlighting the need for public education.

There needs to be a level of personal responsibility coming from the driver

Who should take responsibility for driver’s education?

Education around autonomous vehicles can take many different forms. One of the most important ones is to give people the chance to experience automated vehicles for themselves. In Las Vegas, for example, a shuttle trial was recently performed, where people were given the chance to try an automated shuttle for themselves. Although people’s perceptions of connected and autonomous vehicles changed according to their age and income, up to 96% of people agreed that experiencing CAVs for themselves helped them understand the technology, and their opinions had changed positively as a result of the trial. This is great proof that trials are the main tool for public education, and the more trials the public experiences, the more industry players can increase the public’s opinion.

The government should also take responsibility and play a part in public education, especially when it comes to autonomous public transport. Bus trials, for example, will teach people what it’s like to use CAVs as a shared form of mobility, how it would feel to ride alone, at night, without the safety factor of a driver. Many people fear that transport without a driver acting as a safety buffer will result in increased crime and less safe and efficient traffic, but who is to say a driverless bus won’t have a security team? For example, safety conductors could be hired instead of drivers to increase safety and responsibility in transport. But without allowing the public to experience these options for themselves, they will never know how they feel, and they will always assume more negative opinions.

Experiencing autonomous vehicles first-hand goes a long way in making consumers feel comfortable with the technology

One of the options that is mentioned the most in terms of where to place the responsibility for educating drivers is the manufacturers. Although they play an important role, placing the blame on manufacturers is a very complicated area. What happens when a car is sold in the second-hand market? Will the responsibility to educate the new buyer then rely on the seller? The truth is, there needs to be a level of personal responsibility coming from the driver. Most people wouldn’t get behind a wheel without knowing how to drive a car. Automated cars shouldn’t be different. And although this will not be a reality for 100% of people, more effort should be placed on putting the responsibility for education on the drivers’ shoulders, as well as on the manufacturers.

What will happen in the future?

Many people outside of the CAV industry have what they believe to be a clear image of what the future will hold. Some hope it will be filled with automated cars; others hope that automation won’t stick. As some will be relieved to hear: the immediate future won’t change much.

Some people with negative opinions of automated cars dislike them because they enjoy driving and are afraid they won’t be able to in the future. Some people with positive opinions of automated cars like them because they want to enjoy the freedom afforded by a car without having to drive one. And herein lies the point of the automation question: people will still have a choice.

Automated cars today are completely misunderstood

Something that will change is that roads will become safer. Automated cars will be able to count on remote operators that can intervene in case of emergency, remotely assisting victims if an incident happens, or taking over the vehicle to avoid a collision if needed. This will provide people with a level of safety and comfort that hasn’t been seen before.

For the foreseeable future, if someone were to get behind the wheel of an automated car, they will continue to require an up-to-date drivers’ license, in case they need to take over the vehicle. It is only when fully automated cars are ready for the mass commercial market that these rules might change.

A future of automated vehicles is coming, but it is not as close as many automation trends would have people think. They are still far enough away that we can take the time to educate the public on the most responsible ways to approach the technology.

About the author: Karla Jakeman is Head of Automation at TRL

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