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Debunking Self-Driving Myths: We Will Never Be Able to Trust Them

Editor’s Note: In this series, Ground Truth asks industry experts to address some of the most pervasive misconceptions about self-driving technology. Here, Matt Arcaro, a senior industry analyst at IDC, tackles the myth that self-driving vehicles aren’t safe. 

When it comes to traffic safety in the U.S., “we’re not currently going in the right direction,” says Matt Arcaro, a senior industry analyst at IDC specializing in next-generation automotive technologies. Tragically, there was an 8% increase in fatalities from U.S. motor vehicle crashes in 2020, according to the National Safety Council.

Yet, in spite of the promise of Level 4 self-driving vehicles to improve the safety of American roadways, many people seem determined to stick with the devil they know. Nearly three in four respondents to a 2020 survey conducted by Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE) said that autonomous vehicle technology “is not ready for primetime.” A smaller cohort, 20 percent, told researchers that they thought autonomous vehicles would never be safe.

For Arcaro, the lack of awareness about self-driving cars is partly due to the fact that the technology is still embedded in the realm of science fiction. Films like the 2017 action sequel “The Fate of the Furious”—where fleets of hacked cars are commandeered to serve as four-wheeled weapons—only widen the gap between fiction and reality. “Autonomy isn’t widely evangelized or widely available yet,” Arcaro says. “And the scenarios cooked up in movies and TV always push the edge cases of what could really go awry.”

In order to shift public perception, Arcaro advocates for a number of approaches. These include moving towards agreed-upon standards on requirements for system architectures; industry consensus on operating redundancies, like backup computers and redundant braking and steering systems; and common nomenclature for specific automated driving features and capabilities. Communicating broadly what the vehicles can and cannot do in layman’s terms and getting people to actually experience automated vehicles is going to be key,” he says. 

“That means saying; ‘We’re making sure we are doing everything we can so when these automated vehicles reach you, they’ll do everything that you expect, and then some’.”

It’s important for self-driving developers to practice transparency by issuing public safety reports—like the voluntary ones encouraged by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They should also publicize the development pathways that automakers are using to validate their automated driving systems. “Where we are with regulation is still a bare minimum,” Arcaro says. “We need to go a step beyond and be more transparent.”

Trust in self-driving, Arcaro believes, will be directly tied to individuals’ first experiences with autonomous vehicles, a journey that should begin before the passenger ever sets foot in the vehicle. “When you deploy for consumers, that communication has to be made using mobile apps, support staff, and the various interfaces of the vehicle,” he says. He envisions video screens that show passengers what the vehicle is seeing in real-time, apps that allow riders to reach out to support staff with questions, and features that make it easy to change course—or to stop a ride. 

To Arcaro, it’s all about finding ways to help passengers new to the autonomous experience to engage with the driving process. “It’s not as simple as getting in the car and getting to the destination,” he says. “You build trust by giving people the ability to adjust things that may seem benign, but that help you build a portfolio of trust.”

Arcaro said trust in autonomous vehicles can probably best be attained through fleets of ride-hailing service and robotaxies, which can expand their services as consumer acceptance grows. Then comes the more difficult part—convincing Americans that autonomous vehicle technology is not taking away their ability to make their own driving choices, whether it’s personal car ownership or the fundamental right to drive. It’s simply just another mobility option.   

“Part of the American dream was owning a car,” Arcaro says. “That’s hard to backtrack, until you show people a better way. Autonomous vehicles may be that better way, but without safe, responsible deployment backed by data showing the positive contributions to society, we’re going to keep having this conversation.” 

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