Ford CEO Jim Hackett made a surprising public admission earlier this month: He’s not yet comfortable with the self-driving car technology his company or any other company has built.
“The trust isn’t real high,” he told an audience in Michigan after asking if they’d take a ride in a driverless car that morning if given the chance. “I wouldn’t yet, either.”
Hackett’s comments highlight one of biggest challenges for automakers and tech companies working to develop autonomous vehicles: Convincing the public driverless cars are safe.
A recent AAA survey found that over three-quarters of respondents admitted to being afraid of riding in a self-driving car, and only 10 percent said they’d feel safer with driverless vehicles on the road. With highly publicized incidents like Tesla’s fatal Autopilot accident and Uber’s self-driving trial fail, those fears shouldn’t come as a big surprise.
But for all the billions of dollars and time invested in developing autonomous driving systems, the companies responsible for the technology will have to convert consumer fears into enthusiasm.
Eventually, they will. Here’s how:
Keep the ride familiar
The first step to building widespread acceptance for self-driving cars is showing the public what these systems are capable of IRL. That means actually getting people into the vehicles and putting them on the road, an effort that’s already underway in a few very limited trial programs.
Just think: a few years ago, you would never have jumped in a stranger’s car for a ride.
The self-driving pilots being operated by Lyft, Uber, Waymo, and GM’s Cruise are likely the first place the public will encounter autonomous vehicles. The way these programs operate will ease nervous passengers into the world of driverless cars — mostly because they’ll still require a human driver or operator behind the wheel at all times, ready to take over if something goes awry.
With “drivers” behind the wheel, passengers who summon autonomous Uber and Lyft vehicles will have an experience that isn’t much different than a regular ride — and Lyft plans to keep human operators in its cars even beyond the testing phase.
This experience will likely increase public acceptance as these programs expand and the technologies improve, giving the human operators less to do as passengers grow more accustomed to the autonomous systems. Just think: a few years ago, you likely would never have jumped in a stranger’s car for a ride. Now you may do it a few times a month.
Eventually, Lyft and its peers will phase human operators out of vehicles completely — but by then, we’ll be so used to the autonomous driving systems that it won’t matter.
Make AI friendlier
Teaching the public about the systems controlling autonomous cars will be just as important as showing off a vehicle’s performance. Getting people familiar with the foundational technology in self-driving cars will happen through a combination of educational and PR campaigns. The biggest players in self-driving tech are already hard at work broadcasting their message.
Intel, for example, is already working to demystify its self-driving car technology. The company has one of the most recognizable faces in the world behind its efforts, too, with a new ad campaign starring LeBron James and his new driverless car.
The ad shows how even a person of James’ stature can be apprehensive about getting in a self-driving car — but after a short trip in one, he’s “fearless.” LeBron’s smile has worked magic for Nike and Sprite, so Intel’s betting he might have the same success with autonomous vehicles.
Waymo also launched a multi-pronged public education campaign to spread the gospel of self-driving cars to the masses, teaming with organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the National Safety Council. The company will look to educate the public on the potential safety benefits that are projected to come with self-driving cars, with a focus on eliminating car crashes caused by human error completely.
PR and education programs like these will help win the public’s good faith, all while artificial intelligence becomes even more commonplace in other areas of our lives. Digital assistants like Google Assistant and Alexa will play a major role in familiarizing people with AI. This could ultimately help establish trust in a driverless vehicle, especially when these digital assistants become more common in cars and begin controlling more components.
Ford CEO Jim Hackett might not trust his company’s self-driving car technology as it exists today — but he did say that he thinks he’ll be comfortable taking an autonomous ride “very soon.” As Ford develops its technology ahead of the 2021 target, his most important job will be to make sure people are completely comfortable taking a seat in a car that doesn’t need a driver.