This article was a collaboration among Sacramento Chief Innovation Officer Louis Stewart; Moh Musa, CEO and founder of Deepen AI; and Nicola Croce, Deepen AI's growth product manager. It was first published in The European Sting.

While the Silicon Valley races to make autonomous vehicles (AVs) feasible is proceeding full speed, with technology giants, capital-loaded startups and veteran automotive partners working incessantly to get miles under their belt, a subtle but influential enemy is jamming their wheels: public distrust.

Based on recent studies, the general public doesn’t appear to be ready to consume AV technology. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, half of Americans think autonomous cars are more dangerous than human-driven ones, while two-thirds said they would not buy a fully autonomous car. Another study found out that 15 percent of the American public doesn’t believe there will ever be an AV on the market, and 42 percent said they would never ride in a fully automated one. If we look at AAA’s survey, things get even worse: a whopping 71 percent of Americans claim to be afraid to ride in a self-driving car, an increase from 63 percent in 2017. 

One clear reason about the not-so-encouraging numbers and negative trends is that the AV industry is moving fast. As with most new innovation, this industry has had its setbacks (i.e., Uber’s fatal self-driving car accident in March 2018), which have damaged public opinion of AVs.

Autonomous driving is a complex socio-technical innovation with a profound potential impact on our economy and society. The benefits of self-driving cars are massive: drastic reduction of accidents, deaths and injuries; giving access to mobility to minorities and disabled people; boosting the economy; a reduction in traffic congestion and pollution.

Unfortunately, the lack of trust could hamper development and slow down deployment once the technology matures, preventing society from taking advantage of such game-changing advantages. That’s why it is fundamental to start working today to pave the path toward societal acceptance.

How can we solve this trust problem? The answer is complex and multifaceted. A major role is played by design. Embedding trust into software features, design cues and human-machine interaction is a major challenge for AV developers and something that requires careful consideration. While a lot can be done today on the design of current advanced driver-assistance systems, the impact of design on trust will be even more relevant once AVs will start being deployed at scale.

However, given the situation depicted in the surveys above, we need to take action right now to remove obstacles from the future adoption of AVs. A climate of lack of trust is not just detrimental for the whole industry today, but it can also influence regulators to put unnecessary barriers that ultimately will stifle innovation.

The power of education

So, the right question to ask is: What’s the first step toward acceptance? The answer seems to be an achievable one: education and awareness. If the AV industry wants to gain trust, we must increasingly and continuously invest in educating the general public, politicians and legislators about the advantages, potential and limitations of self-driving vehicles.

AV is not the only technology that has suffered from this issue. Take a look at the electric car industry. While EVs are certainly gaining momentum, there is still much work to be done in order for the public to fully embrace and put more of them on the road. That’s why the Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV) industry has created the Veloz organization, a group of action leaders from Fortune 500 companies, public agencies and nonprofits, all aiming to accelerate the public shift to electric vehicles.

Similarly, the AV industry has created organizations like the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets and Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE), which hosts members from AV technology and development startups, including private AV companies such as AutoX and AV software technology firms like Deepen AI; its mission is to reach public acceptance through education and clarity of information. According to co-chair Kelly Nantel: “We believe that if folks know the facts, it’s far more likely that we will fully realize the capability of these technologies to build a better transportation system.”

Transparent terminology

The organization suggests how the first fundamental point that we need to achieve is a shared and clear terminology. It is vital for public understanding and trust of automated vehicles to develop simple language, easily understandable to the general public, about the varying levels of technology and the underlying safety systems.

There are several vehicles from several companies roaming around our roads that feature “self-driving” or “autonomous” capabilities; almost all of these vehicles currently include safety drivers or engineers at the controls who supervise the vehicle’s operations. Many of these vehicles are being designed to operate as part of a ride-hailing or goods-delivery service, and they will not be available for sale to the general public in the near term.

There are many others, which are now on sale and feature Level 2 automation: advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) capable of highway lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control (e.g., Tesla with Autopilot or Audi A8 with Traffic Jam Assist). These features always require the driver to be vigilant and alert and have their hands on the steering wheel.

While they can provide serious assistance, these are not to be confused with fully autonomous Level 4 and 5 at all. It is damaging to public discussion about AV technologies – and potentially unsafe – to refer to vehicles now available for sale to the public using terms such as “automated,” “self-driving,” “autonomous," “autopilot” or “driverless,” because creating an inaccurate impression of their capabilities can put drivers and other road users at risk. Research by AAA, as well as the National Safety Council and the University of Iowa, suggests that proliferation of trade names, brand names and associated terminology surrounding driver assistance systems may contribute to public confusion.

We need to change this salesy trend that inflates consumer expectations while creating serious misunderstandings around terms. People should receive very clear messages about the capabilities and limitations of the technologies present in their cars, and their understanding of those should not be undermined by catchy and appealing trademarks.

Disambiguation of terms, and a clear description and communication of tech capabilities, should be at the root of any educational effort directed toward gaining trust. However, it is not enough to engage technology producers and consumers. All AV coalitions, developers and operators need to ensure they are also working with policymakers, municipalities, governments and communities.

Under-represented communities

PAVE formed around two beliefs: first, the potential for AVs to help create a safer, more mobile, and more sustainable world; and second, that our society will not fully achieve those benefits unless the public and policymakers are active in the conversation about AVs. PAVE’s mission is to raise the level of knowledge and awareness so that everyone with a stake in the future of our roads can have their say,” says PAVE coalition director Tara Andringa.

One of the most sought-after benefits of self-driving cars is the fact that they can have a huge positive impact on people and communities who today don’t really have convenient alternative transport. People with handicaps, elderly and groups living in low-income areas, for instance. These groups of people have the potential to drive early adoption, but they typically are the least involved in discussions and initiatives around technological innovations.

Cities across the US must be more committed with their strategies to win the hearts and minds of their citizens. While it’s fantastic to have test tracks in traditionally more affluent communities, to gain more social acceptance we have to push this industry to work in and with underrepresented communities. For example, the city of Sacramento has created an initiative called the Sacramento Urban Technology Lab, in which government, academia and industry collaborate to transform it into a living laboratory for entrepreneurs, advanced technology businesses and academic institutions.

The city asks private companies if they are willing to work in the neighborhoods where this technology usually arrives last, in order to help citizens feel more involved and not have the impression that the tech is happening to them. Students also benefit from the initiative, as Sacramento is working closely with its universities to ensure that students gain hands-on experience with Silicon Valley tech.

Finally, public trust builds also through preparing the next generations to tackle the radical changes that AV promises for their future. Cities are the ultimate proving ground for this young industry, and they need to start a real conversation about jobs in the autonomous age by making more public the types of jobs being created, so schools and universities can know what programs and curricula to set up.

In sum, the recipe for public acceptance of self-driving vehicles has many ingredients, and it may take a while before AVs reach a mass rollout. What is of fundamental importance is to start educating policymakers, citizens and communities today to make sure society is ready to take responsible advantage of the many benefits promised by the autonomous revolution.