Driverless cars: the road ahead

11th November 2016

Last month, driverless cars had their first UK public testing in a pedestrian environment. More trials are set to follow, in line with a Government objective to allow driverless cars on British roads by 2020.

This is a scintillating prospect for some, in particular those academics, technologists and manufacturers turning the driverless vision into reality. Others are less enthused, concerned by the automotive world’s perceived failure to address core ethical questions around safety and the nature of action between humans and machines.

Whatever your view, the driverless age is dawning. How quickly that happens, and how it evolves are moot points, but there will obviously be an interesting transition period as manually operated and autonomous vehicles use roads alongside cyclists and pedestrians.

A gaping communications pothole lies in the driverless road. The scale and complexity of social, economic, legal and regulatory changes heralded by automated vehicles is difficult to comprehend. That’s before delving into changes within the automotive industry, its supply chain and industries on which it depends, such as energy and insurance.

Stakeholder mapping will be demanding: this is an enormous influencing task, with as yet no national or global bodies to co-ordinate communications around a compelling vision of a driverless world.

Enthusiasts for a driverless “new normal” also face the prospect of shaping behavioural change. Millions of people see driving as a hobby or lifestyle component, not merely a means of travelling from A to B. For many, cars are not just transport.

Engaging consumers who love driving will demand sustained, long-term engagement, appreciating their passion yet offering appealing alternatives. (The same principles apply to many other AI applications. Anyone who loves cooking, for example, is unlikely to embrace AI-driven kitchens unquestioningly.)

That’s not to say that consumers don’t recognise the probable benefits of AI. Our recent Weber Shandwick survey, AI-Ready or Not: Artificial Intelligence Here We Come! shows that consumers globally are more likely to see AI’s impact on society as more positive (45%) than negative (7%).

When it comes to their personal lives, 52% think AI’s is more likely to be positive, versus 7% expecting a negative impact. However, the survey also highlights that 34% of consumers confess to knowing “nothing” about AI and 22% equate it with robots.

A partially-educated consumer market combined with brands excited about the future, means there’s a risk of the automotive industry marching ahead and finding it has created products people either don’t want, or don’t understand.

The automotive world needs to adopt a similar “mega-change” mindset to that which might be taken when building a new city, national infrastructure, or fundamentally reforming the social and cultural values of a country through liberalisation. Communications can help.

All driverless stakeholders need to work together. Not to create a cartel, but to build a sense of common purpose in their communications, and commit to a change management approach that seeks to build support incrementally over time, appealing to hearts and minds.

Background narratives will help consumers truly understand what driverless vehicles are, mean and can offer.

The opportunities of the driverless mega-change are many, and a commitment to dialogue building, inspiring trust, tackling issues head on and planning long-term structured engagements with all stakeholders is essential.

Only then can conversations of the ilk of “what content will consumers want while being driven?” and “which driverless interior design features will inspire people to connect with a motor brand?” become the focus of content creation, communications and conversation.