Our Government’s Role in Communicating About Driverless Cars to the Public

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!

About Lauren Isaac

Lauren Isaac is the Director of Business Initiatives for the North American operation of EasyMile. Easymile provides electric, driverless shuttles that are designed to cover short distances in multi-use environments. Prior to working at EasyMile, Lauren worked at WSP where she was involved in various projects involving advanced technologies that can improve mobility in cities. Lauren wrote a guide titled “Driving Towards Driverless: A Guide for Government Agencies” regarding how local and regional governments should respond to autonomous vehicles in the short, medium, and long term. In addition, Lauren maintains the blog, “Driving Towards Driverless”, and has presented on this topic at more than 75 industry conferences. She recently did a TEDx Talk, and has been published in Forbes and the Chicago Tribune among other publications.
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2 Responses to Our Government’s Role in Communicating About Driverless Cars to the Public

  1. Hi Lauren,

    Given the enormous safety and road carrying capacity multipliers that driverless cars potentially present, do you not think that sensible expenditure on transportation infrastructure is a crucial question for the present? To me, there seems to be little sense in spending billions on roadway and public transportation projects with life expectancies of 50 years plus, when it could all be redundant within twenty.

    I reason that given this current uncertainty, government should be diverting a significant portion of the national transportation budget to not only radically accelerate driverless car development, but more importantly in order to better understand the infrastructure that is needed to cater for them. Otherwise this period of uncertainty that we are currently only in the beginning stages of, will be dragged out interminably with much wastage of public money.

    A classic example of rapid development with a purpose is the NASA Apollo space program of the 1960’s, which entailed approximately $110B in today’s money over ten years. Current commitments, including the Google car project, seem trivial compared to that, and driverless cars seem to be a much better investment than a man on the moon. For reference, the annual US federal transportation budget is about $100B, so how about putting $10B of that a year towards driverless cars?

    Proactive needs to be more than just words, though words are still important. But one needs to know the right words to say, and right now I don’t think we even have that.

    Duncan Campbell
    Principal Traffic Engineer TRAFFESSIONALS


  2. Completely new & inventive idea about driver-less cars… I appreciate the way you have concluded it so nicely… Big hugs!!!


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