As engineers worldwide work to perfect autonomous vehicle technologies, their companies’ communications teams should consider lessons taught in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
In Tempe, Ariz., as you may recall, a pedestrian died after being struck by an Uber ride-sharing vehicle that was operating in self-driving mode. News reports said the person in the driver’s seat may have been watching television at the time of the accident. The public backlash spurred Uber to suspend testing of self-driving vehicles for about six months.
As autonomous vehicle testing has become more widespread, the city of Pittsburgh has pumped the brakes to remind everyone that tech wizardry needs to be accompanied by some good-old-fashioned communications and understanding.
In announcing the “Pittsburgh Principles,” Mayor Bill Peduto outlined both his city’s hopes for benefits from the technology and the expectations they have for vehicle manufacturers.
“Autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to dramatically improve safety on our city streets and yield transformative benefits to equitable access and quality of life for all in our city,” Peduto said. “This can only happen when industry, agencies and people understand one another and work together.”
The Pittsburgh Principles establish a set of guidelines for companies testing autonomous vehicles on city streets. One of the core tenets focuses on open and transparent communications between vehicle developers, the city and the public. With an emphasis on safety, the Pittsburgh Principles call for data sharing between companies testing in the city and public disclosure of any accidents involving autonomous vehicles.
Pittsburgh established a Department of Mobility and Infrastructure in 2018 as the lead point of contact for manufacturers testing in the city. The goal: protect other drivers and pedestrians, encourage development of low-emission, high-occupancy self-driving vehicles and maximize the benefits of the disruptions created by autonomous vehicle technology.
Make no mistake, autonomous cars, trucks and buses on our roads will be disruptive. Governments will need to invest in infrastructure and road maintenance so these vehicles can perform properly. Commercial drivers will need to be retrained to operate these new vehicles at the same time they fear being put out of work by the technology. And even as roads become safer as autonomous vehicles become more common, manufacturers, insurance companies and the public will need to come to grips with the concept that any accidents may have been caused by computer-programming decisions rather than driver error.
According to the Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies, at the start of 2019 there were 123 cities around the world that had pilot programs to allow testing of autonomous vehicles. In the U.S., states like Nevada, Oregon, California and Ohio are leading the way in regulating the deployment of the new technology. In many of these cases, transportation regulators have agreed to work with private companies to test technologies that hold the potential to make roads safer, reduce the costs of transporting goods and improve the environment.
Technology teams from Stuttgart, Germany, to Mountain View, Calif., to Beijing, China, are hard at work perfecting autonomous vehicle technologies that promise a self-driving future for everything on the road—from the family SUV to the truck that delivers that SUV to your local car dealership.
The pressures fueling these innovations come from many sources, including improving highway safety, solving the shortage of qualified commercial drivers and alleviating traffic congestion in urban areas. But before automakers and trucking companies can realize the full potential of autonomous vehicles, the industry will need to gain public acceptance and regulatory approval for these technological breakthroughs.
No matter the engineering accomplishments, the sight of “driverless” cars and trucks on most roads will remain in the future without effective communications programs that educate key audiences and address the risks and rewards of autonomous vehicles.
Vehicle manufacturers, along with technology developers, component suppliers and universities involved in autonomous vehicle research, need to embrace their role to educate key audiences about the technology and adopt the transparency approach when it comes to acknowledging accidents and other “bumps in the road” to commercializing these vehicles.
Overcoming public opposition and fear of self-driving vehicles could prove more difficult than some challenges engineers have faced in vehicle development. By deploying sound public relations and public affairs practices, autonomous vehicle advocates can gain necessary support and regulatory approvals as they prove the safety of the systems on the road.
To learn about Mower’s role in publicizing the first licensed operation of a commercial autonomous truck on an open U.S. public highway, visit mower.com.