Since the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, when Ford Chief Executive Mark Fields told the crowd fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) would be available to consumers by the end of the decade, the auto world has been riding the AV hype cycle roller coaster, complete with its peaks and valleys of monumental achievements and staggering setbacks. And while the AV revolution has not yet produced the overly-rosy predictions of the 2010’s, nowhere came closer to Fields’ vision than the City of San Francisco, where several AV companies have launched significant fleets on the roads in recent years, and where consumers can take a ride in a fully autonomous Cruise or Waymo vehicle without a driver behind the wheel.
The AV world was then shocked by the recent news that Cruise was proactively pausing driverless operations across the country to “reflect on how we can better operate in a way that will earn public trust.”
We applaud the commitment by Cruise to do right by the public and the communities in which they operate, but the Herculean task of engaging with the public on the future of our transportation system is bigger than one company alone. The AV ecosystem—industry, government, and safety groups—needs to join forces in helping to educate the public about the technology, and establish a meaningful and transparent public engagement strategy.
What is the current state of public understanding of vehicle automation? A recent study by MIT, JD Power, and Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE) found that consumer understanding of automated technology is low: drivers are confused about the technology, about the terminology associated with AVs, and—critically—regarding the driver’s role in operating different levels of technology. And consumer confusion is exacerbated by incorrect media headlines and misleading marketing, which deceives consumers regarding a vehicle’s capabilities. All of this has made the public wary of AVs.
Failing to address the public’s concerns—ultimately the industry’s end-users—can result in scepticism, resistance, and mistrust, possibly even setting back the entire AV industry for decades.
In 1993, the State of North Carolina launched the first Click It or Ticket programme, seeking to increase seat belt usage and bolster road safety. Within a decade, the US implemented this nationwide, leading to a 91% seat belt usage rate. Click It or Ticket, which united industry with government entities in an effort to change consumer behaviour to save lives on the roads, was an incredibly successful public outreach and education campaign.
Today, we see a need for a similar effort. As a collective, the AV industry has the opportunity to set a standard for terminology, advertising, public education, and public engagement. The industry needs to help consumers understand the technology and demonstrate its safety; it needs to engage honestly with communities and listen to residents regarding their concerns and needs; and it needs to be transparent when things inevitably don’t always go as planned. By pooling its cumulative expertise, the industry can provide accurate, accessible, and consistent information, dispelling misconceptions and fostering understanding.
Community engagement must be a cornerstone from the onset of the deployment journey. Prior to launching AVs, companies need to perform extensive community outreach, engaging with local governments, community leaders, and residents, where all parties can build trust, gather invaluable insights, and ensure that the deployment aligns with the unique needs and priorities of the community. And communication between the company and the public needs to be regular, ongoing, and go in both directions. As companies work to educate the public about their technology and deployments, the AV companies also have a lot to learn from the community.
Governments play a critical role, as well. As with Click it or Ticket, the public sector needs to work hand-in-hand with industry in ushering in the next era of transportation. Public sector entities should help in engaging their communities, establishing a framework in which AVs can operate, and demanding accountability.
The potential for AVs is vast—a future with safer roads, reduced traffic congestion, greater transportation options, and improved environmental sustainability. However, to unlock these benefits, the public’s acceptance is paramount. The private and public sectors, together, have the power to turn this potential into a reality, transforming transportation for the better. By addressing these issues collectively, we can embark on a journey towards an AV future that truly serves society.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.
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