Future Tense

Google Is Launching a Charm Offensive on Self-Driving Cars

By now, Google’s self-driving cars are a familiar sight on Bay Area roadways. But are they a welcome sight?

That’s what Google is asking its Mountain View, California, neighbors as part of what appears to be a new public-relations push. The company Friday launched a friendly, explanatory home page for its self-driving car project. The website includes sections like “why self-driving cars matter,” “how it works,” and “what we’re up to.” It also comes with a contact form that asks people to report positive and negative experiences they’ve had while sharing the road with Google’s autonomous vehicles. The form looks like this:

Google self-driving car feedback
“How’s my driving?”

Screenshot / Google.com

Google also on Friday published the first of what it says will be monthly progress reports on its self-driving car project. Most notably, the inaugural report includes summaries of all the accidents Google’s self-driving cars have been involved in since the project began in 2009. Actually, it includes all but one: The report, which details 12 fender-benders, was written just before a 13th accident that happened just Thursday. In that accident, as in many of the others, it seems clear Google’s car wasn’t at fault: It was rear-ended while stopped at a red light.

In fact, Google maintains that its self-driving cars still have not caused an accident over the course of their 1.8 million miles of testing. As I explained in a recent Future Tense post, that clean driving record is at once impressive and inconclusive. So far, Google’s cars have mostly traversed territory that the company has intricately mapped in advance. And Google instructs its human drivers to take over whenever they sense danger.

It’s interesting that Google has begun publishing its accident reports just two days after co-founder Sergey Brin defended its previous policy of not publishing them. I suspect that the company has learned something from its Google Glass debacle. Namely, that public suspicion and hostility can doom an experimental tech product before it ever has a chance to win over a mass audience. (Not that Google Glass would have won over a mass audience even if it did have a chance. Fundamentally, it was an idea whose time had not come.)

Google has already taken one important measure to ensure its cars are received positively: It made its self-driving prototypes as tiny and adorable as possible. How can you hate something that looks like a naive koala?

Now it’s taking another step with a show of transparency and openness to feedback. It’s a way to make the whole endeavor seem less scary and secretive. And when the company talks about self-driving cars these days, as Brin did at a shareholder meeting Wednesday, it doesn’t talk much about luxury, convenience, or style. It talks about making our roadways safer.

So far, the charm offensive seems to be working. A widely circulated blog post (or was it originally a Reddit post?) by an anonymous Mountain View resident recently praised the cars for driving “like your grandma”—by which the author meant, cautiously and politely to a fault. And Virginia this week became the fifth state (along with Washington, D.C.) to legalize tests of self-driving cars on public roads.

Previously in Slate: