Tag Archives: sxsw

A Misguided Decision on Driverless Cars

On first glance, the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ recent proposal to ban the testing and deployment of driverless cars seems to err on the side of caution.

On closer inspection, however, the DMV’s draft rules on autonomous vehicles rest on flawed assumptions and threaten to slow innovation that might otherwise bring enormous, time-critical societal benefits.

At issue is the requirement that DMV-certified “autonomous vehicle operators” are “required to be present inside the vehicle and be capable of taking control in the event of a technology failure or other emergency.” In other words, driverless cars will not be allowed on California roads for the foreseeable future.

One problem with the human operator requirement is that it mandates a faulty design constraint. As Donald Norman, the technology usability design expert, has noted, decades of scientific research and experience demonstrate “people are incapable of monitoring something for long periods and then taking control when an emergency arises.”

This has been Google’s direct experience with its self-driving car prototypes, too. As Astro Teller, head of Google[x], told a SXSW audience in early 2015: “Even though people had sworn up and down, ‘I”m going to pay so much attention,’ people do really stupid stuff when they’re driving. The assumption that humans could be a reliable back up for the system was a total fallacy!”

The ramifications are more than just theoretical or technical. The lives and quality of life of millions hang in the balance.

Americans were in more than six million car crashes last year, injuring 2.3 million people and killing 32,675. Worldwide, more than 50 million people were injured, and more than one million were killed. Human error caused more than 90% of those crashes.

It remains unclear whether semi-autonomous or driverless cars would better reduce human error and lower this carnage. Thus, it is important to encourage multiple approaches toward safer cars — as quickly as possible. Instead, California has slammed the brakes on the driverless approach.

Another major problem with the human-operator mandate is that it slows testing and development of systems aimed at providing affordable transportation to the elderly, handicapped or economically disadvantaged. Millions of Americans either cannot drive or cannot afford a car. This hurts their quality of life and livelihood.

Driverless cars could enable Uber-like, door-to-door mobility-on-demand services at a fraction of today’s transportation cost. This will require, however, efficient, low-cost vehicles that do not need (nor need to accommodate) relatively expensive human drivers. It also requires empty driverless cars to shuttle between passengers. The California DMV rules, as proposed, would not allow the testing or deployment of such vehicles or fleet services.

The immediate victim of California’s proposed rules is Google. Google’s self-driving car program is the furthest along in the driverless design approach that the new rules would rein in, and its current efforts are located around its headquarters in Mountain View, CA. Google’s attempt to field a fleet of prototype driverless cars (without steering wheels) would certainly be dashed.

Other companies’ efforts might be affected, too. Will Tesla owners, for example, need to get separate DMV certification to use enhanced versions of Tesla’s autopilot feature? How about GM owners with Super Cruise-equipped cars? How will these rules affect Apple’s car aspirations?

The longer-term victim is California.

Silicon Valley is becoming the epicenter of autonomous vehicle research. Not only are native companies like Google, Tesla and, reportedly, Apple investing heavily in this arena, but the race to develop the technology has compelled numerous traditional automakers to build their own Silicon Valley research centers.

If California regulators limit on-road testing and deployment, companies stretching the boundaries of driverless technology will inevitably shift their investments to more innovation-friendly states (or countries).

The proposed rules must now go through several months of public comment and review before they are finalized. California needs to take that opportunity to reconsider its course on driverless cars.

The Power, Portability of Thought Leadership

In the book Trust Agents, authors Chris Brogan and Julien Smith chronicle the emerging power of employees who become the manifestation of brands, especially in the online and social media worlds. Scott Monty, who until recently was the global head of social media for Ford, is one example of an employee whose social media aptitude and thought leadership created a halo effect for his employer.

I am living proof of the impact of this concept, as I purchased a Ford Flex in 2011 only after being given a ride in one by Monty at the SXSW interactive festival two years prior. The car (and, frankly, the brand) weren’t even in my consideration set before then. I recently traded in the Flex for a Lincoln MKT, so Scott Monty indirectly and unofficially has sold me two cars on behalf of Ford.

The same dynamics exist in the insurance industry.

Dynamic professionals who publish on InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com and elsewhere, who are active in social media and at conferences, who are associated with specific expertise, become (at least in part) the flesh and blood embodiment of their employers’ brands.

Despite some notions to the contrary, this is nothing but good news for those brands.

Here’s why:

1. Thought Leadership Is Owned by People, Not Logos
Brands are not “thought leaders,” because brands are solely a collection of the attitudes human beings have about a company. That’s why I cringe when consulting clients sometimes tell me they “want the company to be known as a thought leader.” In reality, the company can only be known as an organization that attracts and retains thought leaders. The actual expertise and leadership is possessed by the individuals and loaned to the company during the period of employment.

2. All Exposure Is Good Exposure
I sometimes feel like companies are jealous of their thought leaders, believing that notoriety for their individual experts somehow comes at the EXPENSE of notoriety for the brand. In reality, it works in the opposite direction: Individual thought leadership provides awareness and credibility to the employer of the expert…always. 100% of the people who know Scott Monty know he worked for Ford, and it markedly changed how some of those people (including me) thought about that company and its products.

3. You Can Build a Bench
I often hear from companies that they are concerned about encouraging their employees to grow personal brands and become thought leaders because at some point (the companies fear) the expert will depart, and all that work will have been for naught.

At some level, companies are right to think this way. Very few employees are in it for life these days. However, thought leaders benefit from the power of the brands they represent the same way those brands benefit from the thought leaders’ activities, and I believe this symbiosis causes many thought leaders to stay in their roles for a longer (not shorter) time than average.

But, assuming that the thought leader will depart at some point, brands would be wise to not put all their expertise eggs in a single basket, and instead work actively to build multiple thought leaders in each division of the company. (This is why I encourage companies to have multiple/many contributors to ITL.) If you have several thought leaders representing your division or your brand, the departure of one becomes a mere wobble.

4. It Works for LeBron James
Lastly, companies must think about this as the LeBron James effect. James went to Miami and became the best (and best-known) basketball player on the planet. His personal brand grew, and simultaneously shined a spotlight on the Miami Heat organization.


Then he left and took his hoops thought leadership back to Cleveland. Does Miami take a temporary step back in notoriety? They do, but they are still relevant, still in the playoffs, and are building new stars. But the most important questions are these: Does Miami wish they still had LeBron? Of course. But did they benefit from having him temporarily, and would they do it all again the same way? 100% yes.

Find the LeBrons in your company and use ITL and other opportunities to build their expertise, notoriety and thought leadership. You may not benefit forever, but you’ll definitely benefit.