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It’s Our Job to Make Consumers Feel Safe About Autonomous Vehicles

NEWS / 11.20.19 / Jeff Davis

By most accounts, upwards of 80% of new products fail. Undoubtedly, a large percentage are both unnecessary and poorly crafted. But by that same token, at least a few are conceptually innovative and practically well developed. Why is it, then, that they are unsuccessful?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about this question in the context of my work with BlackBerry QNX and our industry-leading suite of foundational software solutions for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs). For the OEMs and automotive companies we work with, it’s an exciting time. Connected vehicles make up an increasing share of those on the road and offer a glimpse into a safer and more enjoyable transportation future. At the same time, lower level autonomous vehicles (AVs) are becoming more and more common in some cities and the technology is advancing each day.

Which brings me back to my original question. Why is it that innovative products fail? Research published in the MIT Sloan Management Review suggests one common reason: companies don’t focus enough on understanding how customers evaluate products and make purchase decisions. In other words, “great products fail because customers do not know they are great.” Or put another way, poor communication efforts doom product launches.

In the context of AVs, it’s true that they face a variety of challenges well beyond marketing. The reality is, self-driving vehicles are years—if not decades—away from road readiness. But when the time comes, it’s critical that consumers are prepared to accept AVs as one of their principle modes of transportation. Currently, that sentiment is far from assured.

A 2019 AAA survey, for example, found that nearly three out of four people are afraid of fully self-driving cars. Meanwhile, only a slim 19% of respondents said they’d be comfortable with using AVs to ferry their children or loved ones. Without concerted outreach, these statistics are unlikely to change. The automotive industry’s “great product” will—if not fail—have its go-to-market delayed because of exaggerated fears over safety, security and reliability; something which we’re already beginning to see as bold predictions for adoption get walked back and more conservative in the face of the stark reality.

These delays matter for reasons beyond the profitability of the automotive industry. Globally, road injuries are a leading cause of death, resulting in 1.35 million fatalities and 20 to 50 million injuries per year. Even worse, vehicle crashes are actually the leading cause of death for those aged 5 to 29. And based on past studies that found over 90% of vehicle crashes are attributable to human error, it’s reasonable to believe most of these deaths are entirely preventable as self-driving technology matures.

Of course, current public wariness of AVs is understandable given the way self-driving vehicles are portrayed in the media. Despite the reality that AVs are already much safer than human-driven vehicles, AV-related accidents drive news coverage and viewer eyeballs in a way everyday fender benders simply can’t, creating a heightened perception of the associated risk.

That’s not to say that AVs are yet ready for widespread use, but one day they will be. We must proactively educate consumers today for that coming reality so that the public does not view isolated early accidents—horrible though they are—as indicative of long-term risk.

A recent Consumer Watchdog report on connected vehicles illustrates why this is easier said than done. The study uses the infamous 2015 Jeep Cherokee hack to portray the automotive industry as, in the words of one outside analysis, “secretive and sleepwalking into danger.” Yet in my experience, I know the opposite to be true. The 2015 Jeep hack was certainly a wakeup call for the entire industry, and today, OEMs and automotive suppliers devote considerable attention to vehicle cybersecurity. As is often the case, perception lags behind reality.

This could easily be the case for AVs, too, but it doesn’t have to be. The AAA automated vehicle survey shows that strategic outreach can be effective in shaping public perception and alleviating consumer fears. Personal experience with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), for example, made individuals nearly 70% more likely to trust features like self-parking, automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control—all of which are building blocks for self-driving vehicles. Familiarity with basic autonomous features may help the public grow comfortable with more advanced autonomous capabilities.

To the automotive industry’s credit, communication and education efforts are already underway in pursuit of this goal. At CES 2019, a coalition of 29 industry, academic and non-profit institutions—of which BlackBerry was a part—came together to announce the Partners for Automated Vehicle Education initiative. PAVE seeks to enhance public and policymaker understanding about AV technology and is one of several groups, including the Intelligent Transportation Society of America and Automotive Information Sharing and Analysis Center, sharing information and coordinating outreach.

With CES 2020 just over the horizon, now is the time to reaffirm our commitment to these organizations and to our shared mission of autonomous vehicle development and deployment. By educating the public about autonomous vehicles, we can usher in the next era of transportation.

Jeff Davis

About Jeff Davis

Jeff joined BlackBerry in February of 2019 and is responsible for the strategic innovation and development of smart transportation markets. With over 15 years of experience in technology and program development across defense and transportation. Jeff had developed programs around cybersecurity, mobility, and connectivity specifically focusing on human interaction with advanced technologies and new concepts.