5 communications challenges of autonomous vehicles

The promise of autonomous driving has started to move beyond aspiration to reality. From the recent announcement of the new MCity initiative in Ann Arbor to the demonstrations provided by Delphi and others at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, examples abound showing that autonomous driving is fast approaching.

At the recent Management Briefing Seminars hosted by the Center for Automotive Research, the Connected and Automated Vehicles section was appropriately titled, “Competition, Rules and Interesting Times.”

For communicators, these interesting times and developments in autonomous driving present opportunities and challenges. Based on the panel at MBS, here are five communications challenges of autonomous vehicles.

1. Technology understanding and expectations:
Kirk Steudle from the Michigan Department of Transportation, noted consumer messaging as one of the top issues facing autonomous driving during his presentation at MBS. The term autonomous driving produces different definitions from different consumers. Many have expectations out of alignment with the realities of the technology. Others have no idea what to expect and feel completely overwhelmed by the concept. For early technology adopters, they’ll be eager to purchase. They’ll also pay a premium not knowing if they’re buying the next laser disc or beta-max or if they’re buying the 4K TV, but paying 10 times what it will cost in a few years. As Chuck Gulash from Toyota stated, ““There will be starts and re-starts. It will take time, especially when the priority is safety.”

Communications professionals can help shape the perceptions and consumer expectations around the autonomous driving experience.

2. Create feelings that inspire purchase:
While technology early adopters will be eager to purchase, mainstream consumers motivations for purchase will be much different. The messages that inspired purchase around performance will be highly irrelevant and replaced by messages around technology and mobility. While early messages will inspire new feelings within customers, these particular messages could come across as very commoditized long-term and make it hard for brands to differentiate.  Communications professionals can lead the way in ensuring that brands take a long-term view on their messages and build creative messages that stand out.

3. The on-going need for infrastructure investment:
The technology infrastructure needed to support safe autonomous driving is significant. But once it’s built, it can’t take the same path as the current transportation infrastructure that seems to be the lowest priority for lawmakers. Crumbling roads make for frustrated drivers, but a crumbling technology infrastructure will crush the entire vision of autonomous driving. Communications professionals will need to create campaigns that encourage lawmakers to continually invest in the on-going infrastructure needed for autonomous driving.

4. Communicating value beyond just mobility:
Autonomous vehicles provide value beyond just mobility. The amount of data needed to create the experience provides opportunities to enhance other areas. For instance, as opposed to sending out vehicles once per year to analyze pavement data, departments of transportation could pull on-going data that would be far more valuable than one-time data in improving road conditions. Communications programs can help to bring attention to these additional benefits that tell the full value of autonomous vehicles.

5. Crisis communications:
The need for crisis communications programs for autonomous vehicle initiatives goes far beyond safety. While safety remains a major potential crisis for autonomous vehicles, crisis plans are also needed around privacy due to the amount of data being collected. Additionally confusion around liability remains a major potential crisis as well. Communications professionals need to help brands prepare long-term for all of the potential crises surrounding autonomous vehicles.

In the closing moments of the autonomous vehicle discussion, Gulash noted that the party missing from the discussions right now is the consumer. Communications can play a key role in bringing the consumer into the discussion. While the technology remains the key development, communications plays a key role in the long-term success of autonomous vehicles.