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Q&A: The Future of Autonomous Vehicles with CNET Editor at large, Brian Cooley

Q&A: The Future of Autonomous Vehicles with CNET Editor at large, Brian Cooley
Brian Cooley, Editor at large at CNET
The future of transportation is coming into full view as autonomous driving technologies hit the road. It’s an exciting new chapter in the history of transportation.
But it also presents many questions about what needs to also happen in terms of fostering customer adoption and trust in the driving public — and society — at large.
To get a closer perspective from others participating in the conversation, we sat down with CNET Editor at large, Brian Cooley, a long-time technology expert as well as a veteran auto reviewer. In this two-part Q&A series, Brian shares his perspective on autonomous vehicles, the social acceptance necessary to see the technology come to the masses and the potential societal implications we may witness.
Q: The autonomous driving era is obviously going to mark an important inflection point in the history of mass transportation. How important will it be to foster consumer trust?
Consumer trust is going to be unusually important here. It’s not like other technologies that have come before — or where if you had a weird smartphone or an early computer and it didn’t go right for you, nobody died. This is a different market where the payload, if you will, the risks, are extremely high. Everyone understands that and as a result every consumer feels that little pang when they think about a car driving itself. Who might get hurt if that happens? That’s, first in their minds. Right after that, they start thinking about costs and whether or not the value is there.
Q: How long will it take for trust to reach that 100% point?
The trust picture is a little unknowable right now because we have so few cars on the road that are even partially self-driving, let alone highly or fully self-driving. So it’s a little hard to ping consumers and poll them on this. They don’t have enough experience or reference points. They mostly have whatever they imagine in their head and that, of course, is not a reliable enough base to assess, to start to go out and measure. So I feel a little awkward right now about trying to figure out how long it will take. I don’t think it’s going to take as long as the doomsayers say, where it may take decades.
From what we’ve seen in a lot of early tests with companies that are deploying self-driving cars they are always finding it surprising how fast the average consumer who is brought in for a test will get comfortable…sometimes surprisingly quickly. Sometimes inside of an hour, they’ll go from being nervous, to relaxing, to reading a book to taking a nap while in one of those cars. That gives an indication that it may not be such a high hill to climb.
Q: The public is starting to get more familiar with specific areas of autonomous driving. How important is that step by step approach?
Most of us are driving a car that has some autonomy in it. It may not look like it but if you have a car that does some self-parking…if you have adaptive cruise control, it’s not that uncommon. If you have a car that will vibrate or bring you back into your lane if you drift — all of these are found, even in rental cars in some cases today. When stitched together, those become tomorrow’s self-driving car. That means we’re planting the seeds of modular acceptance, which will become system acceptance later. That doesn’t minimize the fact that it’s still a big leap but the seeds are being sown.
If you want to find an analogue in the history of technology, take a look at the smartphone. That was a pretty major device but it stood on the shoulders of behaviors that came before it. We knew what it did because of the personal computer, because of digital cameras, because of a portable navigation device we might have had. We were able to synthesize those modular experiences so — `Oh, I got it. That’s what a smartphone is. I’ll go spend the money and make the commitment.’
Q: In thinking about how to generate widespread social acceptance, are there historical parallels you can find with other the adoption of other new technologies?
Take a look at simple, plain cruise control that just holds your speed. That had a little bit of voodoo around it when it first arrived. A lot of people didn’t trust it. If you really want to go back a way, look at women driving. There was a time when a chauvinistic population at the time that didn’t really believe that was going to be safe on the road. So whether it’s technology or whether it’s social outlook, we’ve gone through some iterations already of pretty convulsive change in what we have faith in on the road. This is another one. It’s just the biggest one.
Q: Is there technology already in the market that’s building trust or confidence between drivers and their vehicles?
We have a lot of other technology avenues that I think can help teach the automotive category how to go through this new territory. Take a look at smartphones and take a look at wearables. Those are two areas now where we are really trying to raise the stakes of technology. To have your home and yourself recorded, monitored, gathered and made available to services that want to help you out. That’s exposing yourself; that’s some degree of risk; that’s some degree of inviting technology into what used to be an analogue safe zone where you pushed all the buttons yourself. I’m sure there are lessons there. Consumers are being asked to embrace a lot that involves trust right now.
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