Driverless cars – a best practice in industry and regulatory collaboration?

Almost every automaker is in the process of developing autonomous or semi-autonomous cars. And the technology industry is also staking its claim. Uber, for example, is betting its long-term viability on driverless innovation. Google (and if reports are to be believed, Apple) is also making investments in this space. It is clear the self-driving car has moved from science fiction to science fact. And automakers now predict that driverless cars may be ready for sale as early as 2021 – five short years away.

The pace of innovation in this space has been breathtaking. And while the concept of ceding control to an autonomous vehicle seems difficult to fathom today, the last 10 years of technological innovation have taught us that consumers’ willingness to adapt in the name of convenience is nearly limitless.


Against that backdrop, I want to take a look at how regulators and the automotive and technology industries are approaching the likely issues ahead, and the role communications is playing and will play in bringing a still-wary public on board.

Since the tragic death of a Tesla driver in May while testing a self-driving car, media commentary has speculated whether the aggressive timeline proposed by manufacturers was realistic. Would passenger safety be sacrificed at the altar of innovation?

Experience has taught us that innovation waits for no one – particularly not regulators. Uber and Airbnb for example, pushed forward with their transformational services – asking for forgiveness (or going to battle) rather than seeking permission. But in the case of self-driving cars, that approach is unlikely to work. The psychological step required on the part of the average consumer to use a driverless car is huge, and without quantifiable proof these cars are safe, deep market penetration will be tough to achieve.


With this in mind, the US government – specifically the Department of Transportation – took an unprecedented step and proactively issued a set of federal guidelines in September. These provide guidance to manufacturers on factors they should consider – privacy and cybersecurity, for example – as they develop the technology. But the emphasis of the guidelines is not on imposing regulations that could slow down progress. Instead, the guidelines request, for example, that makers of driverless cars complete a 15-point safety and performance checklist that the public can see – putting transparency at the heart of their efforts. There are even guidelines to states on how to ensure uniformity of regulations.

This is a welcome move on a number of levels. In recent blogs I have talked about the risks companies run in ignoring regulatory standards and the cost – both financial and reputational – of doing so. I have also broached the issue of how regulators have allowed themselves to be outpaced by innovation and the need for both sides to find workable compromises.

It is deeply encouraging to see the government, car manufacturers and technology titans work in unison to help assuage consumer concerns re autonomous vehicles.  

And yet there is much more to do. Numerous questions remain unanswered. What are the implications for insurance companies? Who will be responsible in the event of an accident? Uber drivers are currently battling to be viewed as employees rather than contractors, but self-driving cars have the potential to render them obsolete. Will we see battles with labor organizers as a result? There are also environmental factors to consider. Will we face the scenario of an endless stream of self-driving cars circling streets all day in search of customers?


The guidelines admit that much is yet to be clarified, and regulators anticipate issuing updates within a year, encouraging the public at large to voice their concerns.

This collaborative effort is in essence the opening gambit in a years’ long communication strategy to convince the public to embrace one of the most radical innovations of any lifetime. The publication of President Obama’s op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ensured the topic will receive a wealth of attention for some time to come.

It will be fascinating to watch how the story unfolds. In the meantime, the decision by all vested parties to work together and create a forum for constructive two-way dialogue with the public and all concerned stakeholders is a welcome change of approach.