At times of scepticism about so called ‘disruptive’ technology, lack of trust in decision makers and community uncertainty about job and economic security, public discussion about autonomous vehicles has been overwhelmingly confusing. It has lacked a cogent narrative such that communicators now need to audit the messages for credibility, consistency and even compassion.
Regular media updates about driverless vehicles trials, and even firm plans for the introduction of the transport in our cities has consumers wondering just where it’s all at? For example, we learn that Australia’s transport regulator, the National Transport Commission, is working on a national law to unify the nation’s different road rules in the wake of the introduction of autonomous vehicles. Meanwhile insurers demand more certainty not just about road rules, but guidelines from governments and regulators about risk management, including vehicle manufacturing standards, driver and pedestrian responsibilities and, of course, shifting liability.
Australians are widely regarded to be a nation of early adopters of new technology, including recent introductions in payment platforms and cardless technology. Whether this enthusiasm extends to autonomous vehicles is less clear.
A number of surveys and reports reveal a high degree of scepticism and reluctance by Australian commuters to ever use an automated vehicle. Others suggest Australians are positive about driverless transport and its benefits, which we are told will be road safety, including cuts in our appalling road toll, less pollution and reduced congestion. Reports from the Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia for example, highlight high acceptance of the technology, with just under half of Western Australians feeling positive about it, with 28 per cent claiming to be ‘extremely so’. Another survey (from 2016) showed that less than 10 per cent of Australians had even driven a car with some self-driving capacity. Victoria is reporting a ‘massive shift’ toward driverless vehicles and even that this could worsen traffic congestion.
The term ‘automated vehicle’ is not limited to cars; it includes trucks, buses and trains. It best describes a spectrum of direct controlled, remote controlled and fully autonomous vehicles. This is a core message that is often overlooked such that the general impression we are left with is that these vehicles offer a future of ‘driverless’ transportation. This can be alarming for a nation of commuters who daily traverse long distances between sprawling suburbs of large housing developments that have little or no public transport options and consequently force them to use private cars on already congested roads and freeways.
As we have mentioned, there are currently numerous of trials of autonomous vehicles underway in Australia, particularly in the public transport and mining sectors. The latter sector’s use of driverless vehicles is well advanced across resource extraction and even fully automated trucks and trains. Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales is investing in automated vehicle technology including trials of driverless shuttle busses and plans to extend testing of automated vehicles on some of Sydney’s major roads. Victoria’s infrastructure planners are modelling difference scenarios of take up across public and private sectors, as well as individual household users, including the cutting of that state’s fleet by 93 per cent.
The public education and messaging accompanying these trials and forecasts is muddled. Just what the benefits might be has been clouded. For example, in an address to a major economic think tank, one Minister for Transport noted that he considered a positive industrial relations consequence of automated trains was that he would not have to deal with the rail union, and also that the bus driving workforce will be disrupted. It may have been a light hearted comment, but alarm was raised as to the ‘real’ purpose of this technology. The subsequent message of industry transformation, safer roads and new employment opportunities got lost.
These are uncertain times, with dwindling levels of trust, confusion over employment identity and rising scepticism about change. Job losses and workforce retraining demand sensitive discussion. A clear, concise and empathetic communication strategy should be devised and executed so that employees and the commuting public not only understand the need for transformation, but become accustomed to the changes and what they mean for our community.
By Jacquelynne Willcox, Managing Director and Executive Vice President of Powell Tate Australia
This piece has also been published by Public Affairs Asia