An autonomous future will be about more than good technology

While the technologies that power autonomous vehicles are rapidly improving, consumer sentiment and confidence is headed in the opposite direction.

In a Cox Automotive study released in August 2018, nearly half (49%) of all consumers surveyed said they would never buy a fully autonomous vehicle. That’s up from 30% just two years ago. The perception of autonomous vehicle safety has also declined nearly 20% in that time.

More vehicles on the road with autonomous features has not surprisingly led to high-profile and widely publicized accidents. But according to the Cox survey the effect of those accidents isn’t the only reason confidence has declined. Those unaware of the autonomous accidents are just as likely as those who are aware to believe roads are safer with human drivers. Just hearing and reading about more driverless vehicles on the road makes people uncomfortable.

A fully autonomous future maybe years away, but if it is to achieve mainstream adoption, consumer acceptance and education needs to begin now.

The road to autonomous vehicles will be made up of gradual advancements that are available in cars that consumers can drive today and in the near future. Many new cars already offer autonomous capabilities where the vehicle is able to control certain parts of the driving experience.

For example, several cars today offer highly advanced smart cruise control systems that are capable of maintaining a constant distance from the car in front, automatically accelerating or braking to a full stop if traffic comes to a halt. Some also offer the ability to automatically steer the vehicle and change lanes in certain conditions. In a very short time the number of vehicles with these features will grow dramatically.

All of these features are a precursor to more automation and every year that goes by will be important in the consumer acceptance of these technologies. This is where communications comes in. The future of autonomous vehicles, which have the potential to improve safety, create more free time, increase mobility for the disabled and elderly, and provide greater flexibility in transportation, relies on smart communication strategies.

Many companies are quickly skipping several steps and jumping straight to talking about fully autonomous ride sharing services where the driver has no control and using misleading names to describe certain features, like Tesla’s poorly named Autopilot mode. Consumers clearly want to gain confidence in the gradual advancements where they can use autonomous features in certain situations but still have the ability to take control when they want.

Too many fantasy-driven headlines are skewing people’s perception. It’s on the car companies to better communicate and educate customers, federal and local governments, regulators and other stakeholders on these technology advancements, just like the industry has done successfully throughout its history.

The inevitability of self-driving cars might be put on hold if the industry and its companies don’t put equal amounts of attention in how they communicate as they do on technology development. They need to start by being more realistic about the technology’s capabilities of today, its areas for improvement and better articulate what the development path should look like, instead of selling the future vision all at once.

Starting now, communications holds an important key in how the future of mobility will play out.

To download a full copy of the 2019 Relevance Report, click here.