The robot car industry just acknowledged it has an image problem


For the driverless car industry, 2018 saw technology breakthroughs. Unfortunately, the year also was a public relations disaster.

An experimental Uber driverless car, with an inattentive “safety driver” at the wheel, ran over and killed a woman walking her bicycle across a highway in Arizona.

A U.S. Senate bill that would have allowed hundreds of thousands of robot cars on the nation’s highways stalled in part over safety concerns.


Waymo, the acknowledged leader, slowed deployment of its long-planned driverless taxi service near Phoenix, limiting it to several hundred handpicked customers and keeping human engineers inside the car. Later, the New York Times revealed that some of those Waymo cars are being attacked with rocks and knives.

To cap the year, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk appeared on “60 Minutes” driving down a Silicon Valley highway behind the wheel of a Model 3, his hands in the air and a grin on his face, to show correspondent Lesley Stahl how the car can drive itself. Critics pointed out that Tesla’s Autopilot is not driverless technology, that several people have been killed apparently using Autopilot improperly, and that Tesla owner manuals instruct drivers to keep their hands on the wheel.

That gives a good sense of why driverless companies felt the need to form a wide-ranging consortium whose aim is to change the way the public views the industry.

Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, or PAVE, which was unveiled Monday at the CES technology trade show in Las Vegas, includes carmakers Audi, General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota and Daimler; driverless technology companies Waymo, Cruise, Aurora and Zoox; and computer chip makers Intel, Nvidia and Mobileye.

The group said it will “seek to bring realistic, factual information to policymakers and the public so consumers and decision-makers understand the technology, its current state and its future potential — including the benefits in safety, mobility and sustainability.”

“We want to make sure that consumers and policymakers understand what’s real, what’s possible and what is rumor or speculation,” said Brad Stertz, head of government affairs in the U.S. for Audi.


In 2017, Stertz discussed the industry’s public image at a Silicon Valley restaurant with Mark Rosekind, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, now in charge of “safety innovation” at Zoox, a driverless car start-up. There is too much confusion about the technology, they agreed. Some people fear it. Some people are overenthusiastic about its current state.

The driverless car narrative needed changing, they decided. But it couldn’t be done simply with public relations spin. An objective, factual education approach was required, they decided.

Critics point out that many of PAVE’s members have a stake in the driverless future. They are skeptical that the group will be objective.

“A corporate coalition of technology profiteers claiming to focus on safety is akin to the tobacco companies telling us they have a safer way to deliver nicotine,” said Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.

But Kelly Nantel, vice president for communications and advocacy at the National Safety Council, a member of PAVE, said that “the power of the group is its diversity.” She notes that while its 20 founding members include major automakers, they are joined by the National Council on Aging, the National Federation of the Blind, the Miami-Dade County government and her group.

PAVE “is not a lobbying group at all,” Nantel said, and it won’t take a position on any federal, state or local legislation.


Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said he’s been pushing auto manufacturers for years to make sure the interfaces inside driverless cars can accommodate the visually impaired. PACE, he said, gives him a seat at the table.

“We have the expectation that these are going to be used in public service fleets, and they have to be accessible to us from the beginning,” Riccobono said. Driverless cars, for obvious reasons, could vastly improve the lives of those who can’t see well enough to qualify for a driver’s license.

PACE plans a public website and educational workshops with policymakers. Stanford University’s Center for Automotive Research will be a partner. Events will be held around the country so that politicians and the general public can “see, touch and feel” driverless cars — and ride in them.

The group faces serious public perception challenges. Although the carnage caused by human drivers is obvious — nearly 40,000 people killed by cars in the U.S. annually, the vast majority of cases being the fault of the driver, not the car — the driverless industry has millions of road miles to go to prove with statistics how safe driverless cars are compared with human drivers. And the only way to prove that is to put cars on the road.

The public is wary. A Gallup poll in May asked people whether they would use driverless cars if they were available today and certified by government safety agencies. Only 9% said they would use one as soon as possible, 38% said they’d wait a while, and 52% said they’d never use one.

Some PAVE members believe that some companies and driverless proponents are hyping driver-assist technology — which might offer adaptive cruise control, lane keeping and lane changing — as driverless technology. “If you believe a car is self-driving, your behavior is going to be different than if you know you have to be always engaged as a driver,” as is the case in every automobile now being sold, Nantel said.


She used Tesla’s Autopilot as an example. “For the average consumer, calling something Autopilot implies it’s self-driving technology, when it’s really driver assistance technology. We’ve created an environment where consumers don’t understand the limitation of the technology.”

Musk has long insisted that the word Autopilot causes no confusion. Neither Tesla nor Uber is among PAVE’s 20 founding members. It’s unclear whether they chose not to join or were not invited. Tesla hasn’t responded to a request for comment, and Uber declined to discuss the matter.

Some critics say driverless tech advocates could advance their cause by doing more to improve safety now and adding safety technology to conventional vehicles.

“Effective, advanced technologies are available today including automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and blind-spot detection,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “However, these technologies are typically only available in high-end models or expensive trim packages.”

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said that although PAVE may be emphasizing education, the driverless industry had been criticized for a lack of transparency, especially in the aftermath of serious accidents.

“Consumers deserve publicly disclosed, objective, measurable, verifiable and quantitative test results before driverless vehicles are allowed to be introduced to commerce,” he said.


Twitter: @russ1mitchell