A smooth ride.
Enjoyed taking a short nap while getting a lift to the grocery.
Those comments might seem like everyday remarks by someone that has recently undergone a typical ridesharing journey and subsequently was asked how the ride experience went.
Add this next comment to the bunch and see how it somewhat changes the picture: Was fascinated by the empty driver’s seat and the fact that no one was at the steering wheel during the entire trip.
That type of remark is a bit more surprising, namely that there wasn’t a human driver at the wheel of the ridesharing car.
Sure enough, various rider testimonials are now increasingly being used to promote the ride experience related to taking a journey in a self-driving car that is being used on our public roadways. To clarify, for true self-driving cars there isn’t a human driver at the wheel and instead, an AI-based driving system is undertaking the entirety of the driving chore.
These alleged off-the-cuff testimonials are usually by first-time riders in self-driving cars.
Why care about this?
From an industry perspective, the public roadway tryouts of self-driving cars are occurring at a very formative time.
So far, the general public and regulators have not taken an outsized interest in these self-driving car efforts, as long as nobody seems to be getting hurt and there aren’t significant calamities or complaints (exceptions apply, see my coverage at this link here). It would seem that as long as those ostensibly stable conditions seem to remain relatively calm and are otherwise below the radar of mass media attention, self-driving cars will continue to get their initial footing established.
The thing is, being too far below the radar is also unattractive, at least for the advent of self-driving cars all told. By not sufficiently getting the word out-and-about that self-driving cars are presumably becoming proficient at navigating our roadways, doing so without car crashes and car mishaps, these moonshot-like efforts are nearly invisible to the public at large.
And, this also tends to suggest that there isn’t a reservoir of goodwill being gradually accumulated.
The need for goodwill is going to be more pronounced once these nascent tryouts want to expand further and go both deep and wide in rolling out self-driving cars. It is one thing to do such tryouts when there aren’t many of the vehicles and they are gingerly being used in very narrow ways, meaning that the chances of something going awry is less likely. Whence self-driving cars are more largely put onto our roadways, the odds are that there will be untoward moments.
How will the public and regulators react to such untoward moments arising?
Probably not very well.
The assumption is that if sufficient goodwill has already filled the public sentiment reservoir there will be a cushion to cope with the anticipated backlash. Ergo, the belief is that any bad apple instances won’t ruin the entire barrel.
At least that’s part of the thinking behind promulgating these testimonials.
Of course, another factor involves wanting to get investors interested in and excited about investing in self-driving cars.
Trying to keep the attention and funding by antsy investors can be challenging when the payoff is years upon years in the future. Whereas there were earlier “false expectations” about self-driving cars as being viable on day one, most prudently now seem to realize that the development and fielding of self-driving cars is a lot harder and a lot longer to ferment, thus requiring a form of investor patience seldom seen by those that want a quick payoff.
Okay, so a lack of calamities is wonderful, but then how can you otherwise generate positive interest and overall awareness that self-driving cars are getting underway?
Some of the automakers and self-driving tech firms have been posting online videos that showcase their self-driving cars roaming around a town or city. These videos are meant to reflect that these AI-driven cars are doing just fine, thank you very much, and they are able to do day-to-day driving. Most of the video running time is devoted to watching as the vehicle makes turns here and there, stopping cautiously and correctly at all red lights and stop signs, and pretty much demonstrate the same driving prowess that you might expect any newbie driver to perform.
I’ve previously pointed out that these videos are handy but can also be somewhat misleading, depending upon how they are recorded, and how they are sometimes edited, and I have put together a list of handy ways to scrutinize such videos for their veracity in reflecting the truth about how self-driving cars are coming along (see my analysis at this link here).
Beyond the posting of videos, another means of publicizing self-driving car tryouts consists of posting testimonials by riders.
For much of the self-driving car tryouts to-date, the only riders consisted of trained back-up drivers that rode in the vehicle and had to be prepared to take over the driving controls if so needed (for the skinny on back-up drivers, see my coverage here). Getting the reaction of back-up drivers to being in a self-driving car is not especially noteworthy since they are being paid to serve as hired-gun safety drivers. Usually, they are not allowed to say anything about the job, other than occasionally releasing carefully scripted comments.
In a sense, it would seem to be the equivalent of asking a ridesharing driver (a human one) about their efforts of driving a car for ridesharing purposes. The odds are they would provide a glowing account of how tremendous the driving ability is. It seems doubtful that they would fess-up to nearly having bumped into a pedestrian or openly talk about tires screeching when precariously traversing some street corners.
In any case, the general public would be decidedly less impressed by what a paid-for back-up driver might have to say than what an everyday person might have to say about riding in a self-driving car, doing so on a non-paid basis and solely in the capacity as a passenger.
In short, people would likely want to know what other ordinary riders have to say.
This helps to then establish whether self-driving cars seem safe enough and are real enough to be taken seriously. We already all seem to be fascinated and convinced by testimonials about toothpaste brands, toasters, and nearly all kinds of products imaginable. Seems like testimonials about self-driving cars ought to work similarly.
Some pundits point out that the self-driving cars industry has been somewhat slow or behind the wheel, if you can so allow, in terms of marketing their efforts. Some suggest this is due to the technological bent of the automakers and self-driving tech firms involved. For them, the focus is primarily on making a better mousetrap, in this case devising a self-driving car, and little energy goes toward the aims of marketing or promoting their wares.
Others emphasize that the industry went over its toes and marketed itself too early and with so much bravado that it backfired. All those tall tales about self-driving cars suddenly inhabiting all of our highways and roadways overnight have not come to pass. The public came to realize that the prophecies were premature. As such, there is a certain sensitivity nowadays about those that inflate expectations, though there are some that seem to still be able to get away with this via their ardent fanbase support and maverick style charm (for more on this, see the link here).
The use of testimonials by riders is a seemingly ideal way to gently nudge back into public view.
Having riders offer their opinions is pretty nifty. Testimonials tend to be assumed as coming from the hearts of those that proffer the testimonials. It takes the attention away from the maker of the product and turns the eyes toward someone like us. You say to yourself, that could be me, touting how great that toothpaste is, or how toasty that toaster is, or how wonderful a ride it was in that self-driving car.
This also allows the maker of the product to stand tall. They are merely legitimately putting forward a customer that wants to express their views. What could be wrong with that? Indeed, it seems to not only offer an unbiased and forthright assessment, but it also seems chancy for the product maker since the customer telling their story might go afield of what the company might prefer to be said.
There is another facet about testimonials related to self-driving cars though that differs substantively from testimonials about products such as shampoos and skin creams.
Life or death.
That’s right, the act of riding in a car is altogether a life-or-death matter.
You might not think of being inside a car as a life-or-death kind of activity, but it assuredly is. Each time that you get behind the wheel of a car, you are putting yourself at risk of getting into a car crash. Similarly, each time that you get into a car as a rider, whether in a ridesharing vehicle or a taxi, or a friend’s car, you are also absorbing the risk of getting into a car crash.
We are so used to using cars that the daily risk involved is either immensely discounted or outright ignored.
In the United States alone, there are annually about 40,000 car crash-related fatalities and about 2.5 million injuries. Few that drive a car are aware of those statistics. Few that go for a ride in a car are aware of those statistics. Even if you know about those figures, you probably would proceed to drive and ride in cars anyway, because you need to get from point A to point B and the assumption is that nothing is going to happen to you during that driving journey (or, that the odds are extremely remote and therefore worth the marginal risks entailed).
But would you feel the same way about getting into a self-driving car?
People are unlikely to assume that their personal risk is minuscule when taking a ride in a car that is not being driven by a human. Actually, people are likely unsure of what the risk is. They know that human drivers have lots of driving foibles and issues. There are drunk drivers. There are distracted drivers.
Which is the better bet, namely to have a human at the wheel or have an AI driving system doing the driving?
There is an obvious risk-reducing factor that the AI won’t be drunk driving and will presumably not be a distracted driver. On the other hand, the AI is an unseen and unknown element. You can size-up a human driver and make your own decision about whether they seem worthy as a driver.
There aren’t any apparent means to do the same for an AI driving system.
Thus, the vital nature of testimonials.
Perhaps those that are riding in self-driving cars can inform us about the safety and validity of those AI driving systems. These fellow humans, albeit seemingly daring riders, took a chance and opted to go for a ride. Are they akin to astronauts that are willing to break the sound barrier and act as first-movers that heroically can attest to what they felt and saw? That’s one view of how powerful such testimonials can be in shaping public opinion about self-driving cars.
Not everyone is convinced that these testimonials are fair game, so to speak.
There is controversy afoot about testimonials associated with riding in self-driving cars.
Here then is an important question to ponder: What ought we sensibly derive from the ongoing and expanding use of personal testimonials about riding in self-driving cars during these public roadway tryouts?
Before we unpack that matter, let’s make sure we are all in concordance about what is meant by referring to those vehicles that are considered true self-driving cars.
Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars
As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.
These driverless vehicles are considered Level 4 and Level 5 (see my explanation at this link here), while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).
There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.
Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some contend, see my coverage at this link here).
Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).
For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.
You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.
Self-Driving Cars And Rider Testimonials
For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.
All occupants will be passengers.
The AI is doing the driving.
A rider gets into a self-driving car and goes for a ride. Eventually, this will be a daily occurrence and nothing to write home about per se. The notion of going somewhere via a self-driving car will be as natural and mundane as going somewhere by the hands of a human driver being at the driving controls.
Right now, going for a ride in a true self-driving car is extremely rare.
Since most people aren’t likely to be a rider in a self-driving car for some years to come, they are intensely curious about what it must be like. Voila, thus the keen interest in reading, hearing, or otherwise finding out about personal testimonials by those that have gone for a ride in a self-driving car.
This doesn’t seem to evoke any controversy whatsoever.
Turns out, there are quite a number of qualms being expressed. One of which is that these riders don’t know what the heck they are seeing and experiencing. To some degree, they are neophytes and are ill-equipped to be offering any insights about self-driving cars, goes the criticism about this latest spate of testimonials.
Consider an analogous situation to a magic act and magicians.
You take someone that is not versed in how a rabbit is pulled out of a hat, or how an ace card is startlingly yanked out of a deck of cards, and you ask them about the show they just experienced.
Wonderful, they might exclaim.
Amazing and breathtaking, they might say gushingly.
But if you had a fellow magician watch that same act, they might tell you that the effort you just saw was quite simplistic and had tons of glitches, none of which the non-magician noticed or realized was taking place. Someone that has no training in such matters and otherwise is a complete neophyte is unable to readily discern that which is well orchestrated from that which is perhaps an abysmal mess (the performance nonetheless was sufficiently able to pull the wool over the eyes of said uninitiated).
Harry Houdini was reportedly known for saying, what the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes. In short, when a rider of a self-driving car provides a testimonial, this raises the unstated question of whether they are capable of rendering a sound judgment or not.
The maker of a self-driving car would likely insist that a neophyte is the ideal source of a testimonial.
Regular people are going to be going in self-driving cars, therefore regular people ought to be the ones that tell us what the ride is like. You don’t need to be an expert automotive engineer to go for a ride in an Uber or Lyft ridesharing car that is being driven by a human driver, and thus the same should be the case for self-driving cars.
In fact, if the only way to ride in a self-driving car required that the passenger had to be versed in automotive technology or AI, this would surely undercut the value of having self-driving cars, since very few would be suitably versed to ride in them. There is a clear-cut need to demonstrate that there is no requirement of having any background about self-driving cars in order to ride in and leverage the utility of using a self-driving car.
Those facets are certainly notable, yet this does not respond to the concern that such riders are unable to “fairly and adequately” assess what they have experienced. Yes, they can report what they believe they saw, but akin to a magic act, the whole experience could be smoke and mirrors, yet they were oblivious to the trickery involved.
How could a self-driving car be somehow tricky as a driving journey experience?
Suppose a self-driving car drove you from your home to the mall.
It is a sunny day. There is very little traffic on the roadways as it is midday, before any commuter traffic. The self-driving car takes you primarily onto side streets and only rarely gets onto any major thoroughfare. During the journey, few if any bike riders are encountered. No pedestrians try to dart into the street. No loose dogs running out of someone’s front yard. Etc.
The rider provides a testimonial about how incredible the ride was. Smooth ride, no sudden stops at all. The ride was so seamless that the rider nearly fell asleep. Gosh, it would be great if human drivers could drive as well as this self-driving car.
Notice that from the testimony itself, we have no idea of the context of the driving journey.
Turns out, there wasn’t any arduous traffic to contend with, there weren’t any jaywalking pedestrians, and so on. It wasn’t raining, the day was sunny and the roads were readily drivable. On and on, one can go. All of those are crucial aspects that can take place during any driving effort. We do not know from the testimonial that none of those aspects occurred. It was an easy-peasy driving effort and not at all of the quality and complexity that even an everyday drive might consist of.
So, a bona fide qualm about neophyte first-time riders is that they are likely to provide a glowing testimony that appears to suggest that the self-driving car can do the same depth and breadth of driving that a human driver can do, and yet that is not at all showcased by the ride experience per se. The testimony is essentially hollow, but it nonetheless seems legitimate since it comes from an everyday person that is innocently and sincerely expressing an everyday opinion.
Presumably, an expert that knew about self-driving cars would indeed observe that the driving journey did not particularly stretch the boundaries of a driving effort. This would be akin to the versed magician, knowing when the “act” was able to deftly do something and when it was not doing so. A neophyte has no such awareness and therefore cannot fully express what took place.
A counterargument about using an expert is that they would be unlike an average rider and therefore not be able to report the experience as though they were an everyday person. The public perception would be that only an expert would be willing to ride in a self-driving car, and somehow, therefore, being a passenger requires specialized skills and expertise.
Another claim is that an expert would likely focus on trivia or insider details of little concern for the ordinary rider. All that matters to a passenger is whether the ride proceeds safely and whether they get to their destination. No need to know about how the sensors were working or the maneuvering of the vehicle by the AI driving system.
There are numerous other considerations to keep in mind about the controversies on this topic.
For example, there is a selectively “bias” associated with the rider testimonials.
Here’s what that entails.
Suppose there are ten people that each went for a ride, doing so on separate journeys. Let’s pretend that nine of them thought the ride was terrible, for whatever reason. One rider thought the ride was astonishing. The self-driving car maker posts the remarks of the one rider that relished the journey but does not publicize the remarks of the other riders.
All that you see is the commentary by the one rider. That particular rider was presumably selected due to their praise for the self-driving car experience. We have no semblance of how many other riders there were and nor whether those other riders did not like the experience. Nonetheless, we are likely to assume that the one rider is representative of the entirety of the riders.
Of course, the self-driving car company can point out that they did not claim that the testimonial by the one rider was necessarily representative of the overarching sentiment. That was a rash conclusion made by those that see the testimonial.
Furthermore, if pressed, the self-driving car maker might contend that the dissatisfied riders were confused or otherwise off-the-mark. Imagine that an upset rider was out-of-sorts that there wasn’t a cup holder for their soda during the self-driving car journey. If that was the sum total of their beef, it certainly seems sensible to not let such a myopic viewpoint overstate the nature of the self-driving car experience.
Round and round the testimonial merry-go-round we go.
In general, testimonials for any kind of product will have the same types of limitations and problems, and everyone ought to judge all testimonials with a jaundiced eye. You can’t toss onto the backs of self-driving carmakers culpability about testimonials as though they are the only ones to have ever taken that route. Thus, self-driving cars are not somehow unique when it comes to the strengths and the drawbacks of testimonials. Someone that provides a testimonial about a shampoo might have no idea about the chemistry involved and cannot properly judge whether their hair might fall out in a month’s time.
The difference though with self-driving cars is the life-or-death element, and so there is a case to be made that perhaps the use of testimonials should be undertaken more somberly than with the latest kitchen cutlery or trendiest vacuum cleaner.
Testimonials are valuable, but as always, make sure to be on the watch for illusions and sleight of hand, and let Houdini’s advice guide you in ascertaining the veracity of what you read or here.