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Automakers and technology companies continue to push toward introduction of the first fleets of fully self-driving vehicles. But building trust in the robotic vehicles is proving just as important as getting the cars to navigate roadways without a human driver.

Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Google's self-driving affiliate Waymo LLC and a number of other companies have spent billions and taken more than a decade to develop technology capable of hauling people or goods without a human in the driver's seat. GM plans to launch a fleet this year, Ford by 2021. Waymo started a small service in Phoenix late last year.

Yet, GM ran into opposition to its petition to federal regulators for permission to put up to 5,000 driverless cars — without steering wheels or control pedals — on public roads. Those building the machines want to make money on them, and that won't happen if consumers don't trust the vehicles enough to use them. 

Experts say people need time to get used to seeing driverless vehicles on the road, even if the cars are identifiable only by the hardware stacks on the roof. The companies also have to convince the public that self-driving vehicles are safe for passengers.

 "There are things that make people feel comfortable," said Ian Sage, chief engineer of innovation at Grand Haven-based automotive design and technology solutions company GHSP. "We were so focused on proving out the technology that we're just now adding other features for the user experience. That's what will be needed to get more adoption."

A 2018 Cox Automotive study found only 16% of those polled would feel comfortable "letting an autonomous vehicle drive them without the option of being able to take control." The number had slid 2 percentage points in two years at the time the study was conducted. 

The first iterations of truly autonomous vehicle fleets from the largest companies in the race would almost exclusively not have steering wheels or gas and brake pedals that would allow a driver to take control. GM said in early June its driverless taxi service might end up having steering wheels and pedals because of the pushback, in part.

High-profile accidents involving vehicles operating in partial-automation or driver-assist modes such as Tesla Inc.'s Autopilot hurt consumer sentiment, the Cox study found. People want vehicles to have "real world" testing, but 54% don't want the testing to take place in their towns.

Experts say automakers need to be more forthcoming to get people on board. Consumers want to know how the vehicle drives, what kind of data is being used and how the machine communicates with the environment. Devices like the series of lights Ford tested with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that would communicate to those outside the vehicle where the autonomous vehicle intends to go would quell apprehensions, Sage said.

Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based technology company partnering with Ford to develop self-driving vehicles, is working to more thoroughly explain how its vehicles work.

"It sounds a little bit like science fiction," said Bryan Salesky, CEO of Argo AI, and a robotics industry veteran. "We hear routinely from people 'Wait, there's no driver in the car?' We don't really talk about this stuff in the most accessible way externally sometimes."

Salesky decided Argo needed to explain how it tests and develops its technology. His team built a website dedicated to explaining in plain language how autonomous vehicles work, and he plans to host sessions in each new city in which the company tests. The company, along with Ford, is testing vehicles and building business plans to launch in five cities. A sixth is expected to be announced this year.

Salesky and his team found in Miami, the city where they first started testing business cases for the vehicles, that pedestrians often reached out to wave hands in front of the vehicles' sensors to try to get the vehicle to react to them — an example of humans not knowing exactly how they should interact with the robotic vehicles.

People might begin to trust the vehicles as they get used to seeing them on roadways, Salesky said. But "acceptance" will lead to a robust business, and the frequent usage the automotive and technology companies hope to see.

"Education is a huge element to what we do," Salesky said. "The starting point is literally at ground zero right now. Acceptance is about getting to a point where a person is willing to give the product a try and understands all the benefits."

ithibodeau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

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