On October 5, 2016, The Hartford with the MIT AgeLab held a day-long executive forum entitled “New Vehicle Technology & the Mature Driver: Examining the Societal, Business & Policy Implications of Autonomous Systems” to explore the social, infrastructure, business, safety and policy implications of the development and proliferation of autonomous vehicle technologies (AVT). Sponsored by The Hartford, and co-chaired by the Chairman and CEO of The Hartford Christopher J. Swift and Director of the USDOT New England University Transportation Center and of the MIT AgeLab Joseph F. Coughlin, Ph.D., the conference featured representatives from organizations including UPS, IBM, Lyft, the American Insurance Association, the MBTA, Ford, and the Highway Data Loss Institute – a group Dr. Coughlin described as the “ecosystem around the automobile.”
“Increasingly, advanced interactive features are being added to vehicles, putting us on the path to the fully autonomous car,” said Swift. “The Hartford, in partnership with the MIT AgeLab, is committed to engaging policymakers, manufacturers and consumers in an ongoing conversation to better understand how these developing technologies can improve vehicle and road safety and provide benefits to drivers of all ages, including helping to extend safe driving years for older drivers.”
Former US Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater spoke at the event, commenting on the recently published federal policies from USDOT and NHTSA concerning the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles. He encouraged business leaders to work with the USDOT in mapping policy prescriptions for a transportation landscape that will soon be populated, if not defined, by autonomous vehicles.
The event included presentations by IBM’s Nicola Palmarini, who described a project by IBM and Local Motors to introduce a self-driving public transportation vehicle named Olli into cities around the world; the Highway Loss Data Institute’s (HLDI) Kim Hazelbaker, who showed the effects of current driver assistance technologies on car accidents and insurance claims; the AgeLab’s Chaiwoo Lee, who presented findings from a survey gauging consumer perceptions and knowledge of self-driving cars; and the AgeLab’s Bryan Reimer, who elaborated on some of the challenges inherent to how humans interact with autonomous systems.
Understanding current and emerging trends, as well as the long-term implications of autonomous vehicles on the personal auto business and mature customer base, will help ensure that the industry continues to meet customers’ evolving needs. To better understand the customer perspective, the conference featured a consumer panel – those who will make or break how autonomous vehicle technology is used, accepted and trusted – to discuss how they think about AVT. Including people ranging in age from their 30s to their 80s, the group described what they knew about self-driving cars, their trust toward new technologies, and their views regarding how an autonomous system should respond to ethical dilemmas. Consumer panelists mentioned wanting perfection in the functionality of autonomous vehicles; one group member refused to consider a scenario in which an autonomous car would have to choose between the life of its passenger or a nearby pedestrian. But achieving perfection within a complex system is a virtually impossible task, and ultimately consumers are bound to share the road with self-driving cars long before any such ideal has been achieved. The question is whether drivers trust the technology: are they willing to take the risk of ceding control of their vehicle to realize a potentially enormous gain in safety?
Underlying all of the discussions throughout the conference was the tension between the speed at which AVT is developing and the extremely high threshold for reliability that such technologies will have to meet in order to be approved by ordinary consumers – not to mention government regulators. In the words of former Secretary Slater, technology companies will have to move from being “disruptors” to “enablers” – they must begin to work deliberately and concurrently with entities like the automotive industry and government in order to have an impact and to be trusted in transportation, a sector heavily involved and invested in protecting people’s lives.
A long-form summary of the conference is forthcoming, accessible first to AgeLab members and later to the general public.