Why outreach, engagement, and education are essential to building trust when testing and deploying innovative technology such as driverless cars and trucks.
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Earlier this week, while in the midst of practicing social distancing I sought a much needed mental break from following the latest COVID-19 developments. I ended up watching a 60 Minutes segment on advancements in autonomous trucking technology. The reporter started by noting that the autonomous trucking industry is rarely discussed with much of the focus being on the self-driving car industry. The segment featured innovative companies such as TuSimple, and Starsky Robotics, which completed the first completely driverless truck test on a highway in Florida last summer. (Note: It has been reported that Starsky Robotics has since ceased operations.)
The piece discussed both benefits of autonomous trucking such as more efficiently helping the country move ~70% of the Nation’s goods, as well as some of the challenges like the potential loss of trucking jobs. (The story did not discuss the U.S. trucker shortage, which has been exacerbated by the trucking industry’s challenge in recruiting drivers—including attracting more women to replace its aging workforce.)
Images from the 60 Minutes Segment
What resonated most for me was a roundtable discussion among several experienced drivers. The drivers voiced concerns about how companies approach safety when testing on public roads. The lack of awareness of safety protocols and oversight—in addition to the lack of trust held by these drivers in both the technology and the companies developing the technology was evident. While no requirement exists to do so, the drivers seemingly were not engaged by companies conducting driverless tests. And, to be fair the 60 Minutes piece may not be indicative of a lack of awareness by those in the trucking industry. However, the concerns about safety expressed by the drivers and the lack of awareness of what oversight mechanisms are in place prompted me to think about the importance of outreach, engagement, education—and ultimately trust and what it looks like in the face of disruption.
The lack of trust in autonomous vehicle testing is nothing new. A recent survey (March 2020) by the AAA revealed 71 % U.S. drivers would be afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle. While driverless trucking was not included in the AAA survey, I would not be surprised if similar conclusions about the lack of trust were reached. So why is trust among industry stakeholders and the general public so important? Well, simply—it serves as a potential barrier to deployment without it. At the crux of whether a disruptive company will be successful is its ability to scale. A lack of public trust and acceptance can significantly hinder efforts to scale quickly. This is why earning trust is critical.
TRUST = Outreach + Engagement
When I think of trust, I think of reliability and consistency. For innovative technology companies—particularly those focused on deploying disruptive technologies, the question becomes how do you demonstrate reliability and consistency (i.e. earn trust) in something that has never been done before? A starting point can be this simple formula: Trust = Outreach + Engagement + Education.
At the risk of oversimplifying this, here are my quick thoughts on each:
Outreach should be targeted, diverse and strategic. Engagement should always be authentic and meaningful with an emphasis on listening. Building coalitions is helpful. Education can seem easy enough in that you want to achieve understanding. Yet, what makes educators so effective is that they understand people learn differently. There are visual learners, auditory learners, etc. Therefore, it would only make sense for a disruptive technology to include tactics which cater to different learning styles.
Overall, the 60 Minutes segment was an informative piece on the state of the autonomous trucking industry and its potential impacts. Much was left undiscussed including a robust discussion about safety, cybersecurity, and the considerable economic impacts. Nevertheless, its inclusion of an interview with drivers who were unaware of the safety measures, oversight, and the progress being made underscored for me why outreach, engagement and education are essential in building trust for disruptive technology companies.
I look forward to a time hopefully not too far from now when we are beyond the current realities of COVID-19 where we can continue to put into action some of what I discussed above. Stay safe.
Originally published in LinkedIn Pulse