Today, at the Northwest Transportation Conference, Jerri Bohard of the Oregon Department of Transportation asked me this question: “What, if anything, should the government be doing now to communicate with the public about driverless technology?” Great question! Upon reflection, here are my thoughts on this:
Right now, in my opinion, the general public is generally not aware of how soon driverless cars are coming or how significantly they will impact our society. If they are aware of driverless cars, they only know what mass media is telling them: “driverless cars are being developed” and “the Google car has gotten into a few accidents lately.” I worry that people’s lack of awareness will slow the adoption of the technology and build fear around it.
I would love to see the government take a proactive role in doing the following:
- Become a spokesperson for driverless cars by providing an objective, unbiased perspective on what they are, when they’re likely coming, and how amazing they could be for our society (Specifically, the safety implications are massive!). Ideally, the government agency is incorporating driverless cars into their agency’s goals, so that is an important part of the messaging.
- It would be great to provide some context about how driverless cars will impact every person: how they travel, whether or not they own their own car, and how safe they will be.
- Communicate honestly about the uncertainty around the driverless car regulations, challenges, and risks. There’s no need to build fear around the technology; however, honesty around the issues the government is grappling with now will provide transparency and build trust.
- Start the dialogue around people’s responsibilities to make good decisions when they travel. Driverless cars will present huge opportunities for our society, but there is a risk that we will have a society of mass congestion if we all purchase our own driverless cars and use them excessively (e.g., sending the car on lots of errands without any occupants inside).
This approach is certainly more proactive than our traditional approach to public outreach; however, this new, quickly-evolving technology seems like the perfect testbed for new government approaches!