What's the hardest thing about taking autonomous vehicles (AVs) from dream to reality? Is my inability to get a car to drive itself to the pub on Friday night and take me home to do with making a computer smart enough to negotiate a roundabout? Would I be able to read a book while travelling up the M1 in a one-person pod, but for the lack of sensors that can see the road in sufficiently acute detail? Is the only thing keeping taxi drivers in the driver's seat the amount of time it takes to thoroughly test AVs?
As the sector rapidly develops its technical competency, coming ever closer to solving these problems and building cars that can drive for ever longer periods without human intervention, another challenge is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore: persuading the public to accept AVs on our streets. As much was highlighted by the British Government's publication last week of a new code of practice for automated vehicle testing which, alongside exciting new technical possibilities, recommends that companies in the sector carefully consider their PR and communications plan.
This comes, of course, in light of reportage earlier this year that vehicles and safety drivers in Waymo's AV testing programme in Chandler, Arizona, have been attacked with rocks and knives. In truth, it's hardly surprising that many people, having been told that this staple of science fiction pop culture is coming to a cul-de-sac near them, are suspicious of its real-world viability and safety.
There is, clearly, difficult work to be done. One route towards popular acceptance will be to find ways of explaining how AVs work, and why the public's safety can be guaranteed, in ways that go well beyond a mere request to 'trust us'. Another will be the introduction of autonomy in small ways, before an Uber-scale ride hailing service is attempted. Already, advanced driver-assistance systems such as automated lane-changing and parking are shifting the balance of control between human and machine.
Personally, I'm looking forward to companies showing off full autonomy before it hits public roads. EasyMile, for instance, which is already deploying autonomous shuttles for last-mile solutions such as airport transfers. Or Roborace, which is designing an entirely driverless, fully electric race car to compete on F1 style tracks.
All of which is a substantial boon for the work we'll be doing of creating narratives which promote the acceptance of autonomy. After all, if you're crafting communications for the cars of tomorrow, there are worse proof points than a car negotiating itself around a hairpin turn at 100mph.
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Trialling organisations should develop a public relations and communications strategy. This can have many benefits, such as mitigating risks and potential issues that may arise during public trials.