Autonomous Driving Communications Event Recap

By: Megan Peterson

Earlier this year we had one of the coolest PRSA Detroit events to date. The panel discussion focused on autonomous driving communications, generously hosted by General Motors and its Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, MI. Our fearless leader and Chapter President, Tim Wieland, moderated a panel of four awesome, local PR pros.

  • Kevin Kelly, Senior Manager of Advanced Technology Communications, GM
  • Emily Guerand, VP of Marketing, Communications and Public relations, Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC)
  • Amy Messano, VP of Integrated Marketing & Communications, Delphi
  • Amanda Roraff, Director of Marketing & Communications, NextEnergy

Let me just say, these folks know their stuff. Kelly kicked off with a staggering stat: 32,000 deaths occur on the roadways each year, and stated, “this is unacceptable.” The heart of that statement, which all the panelist agreed, is that autonomous vehicle technology can aid in making the roads, and therefore consumers, safer.

GM, Delphi & NextEnergy are focused on creating and implementing autonomous technology to keep people safe. MEDC’s role is to show the rest of the world that Michigan is the place for autonomous technology. That means attracting talent to Michigan to work on this technology as well as companies who are in the industry to come to Michigan or if they’re already here, grow their business. MEDC also concentrates its efforts to help job sectors embrace new technology.

The #1 goal, as expressed by all the panelists, is creating (consumer) trust in autonomous technology. Kelly spoke to the need for consumer education when it comes to this technology. First steps include raising awareness that consumers already have automated safety features in their current vehicles like lane keep assist. The thought being, if you explain to consumers that these small-scale tools are already working/trustworthy, a fully autonomous car can be trustworthy as well (makes sense!).

The future. So, where’s the FIRST place we’ll see fully autonomous transportation? Ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, according to our panelists. This will give people first-hand experience with fully autonomous vehicles and ease them into the idea of owning one. Specifically, urban cities will be first to see fully autonomous transportation.

The panelists discussed that studies show cars are only used, on average, one hour per day/approximately 4% of the day. If we have autonomous vehicles, a household may only need one car, as it can get everyone where they need to go. This, in turn, can decrease, and maybe eliminate, parking lots. ANOTHER fun stat shared by Roraff: there are enough parking lots in the U.S. to fill the state of Connecticut (whoa!). This gives more space for businesses, housing, etc. Smart cities of the future, in tandem with autonomous technology, could divert traffic to get first responders where they need to go faster, making everyone safer. Other key benefits if every vehicle is driving the same speed autonomously, would be shorter commutes and fewer emissions. For perspective, however, Roraff reminded us that the majority of Detroit citizens do not have smartphones or personal vehicles, so, there is a long way to go.

What does this mean for PR? There is a HUGE opportunity to market and communicate autonomous technology, partnerships etc., but as noted by all our panelists, it’s important that PR pros stay relevant…Because there is ‘so much noise’ regarding autonomous technology, it’s VERY important to prioritize communications/media relations efforts. Aka, don’t cry wolf!

I hope this was informational/helpful to you, as it was for me. What is YOUR role in autonomous technology? We’d love to know.

Pictured: General Motors’ 1956 Firebird II concept vehicle with autonomous technology.

Megan Peterson is a Senior Account Executive at Franco, a national/Detroit chapter member of PRSA and a PR volunteer for The Lake House in St. Clair Shores.

Photos: provided by Megan Peterson