Autonomous vehicle messaging vital to public perceptions, finds research

New research from Penn State University has found that heavy media coverage of autonomous vehicles, which influences how the public perceives the vehicles, can have lasting effects on the emerging technology and on society.

In a study on the promotional messaging and labelling of autonomous vehicles, researchers from the university’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications found that people’s emotional responses to messages about autonomous vehicles have a significant effect on their views.

For example, found the research, people who were curious about autonomous vehicles were more likely to support stricter regulations, while those who were excited about the technology had stronger intentions of trying it out.

“You can't wait until the vehicles are on the road to suddenly decide the way you've been explaining the technology isn't the best way.”

Jessica Myrick, associate professor of media studies at the college, said that people begin to form their opinions as technologies emerge, and that once these opinions are formed, it’s much harder to change their minds later.

“You can’t wait until the vehicles are on the road to suddenly decide the way you’ve been explaining the technology isn’t the best way,” said Myrick. “Our goal is to understand how the public will understand these technologies in light of different types of media and message exposure.”

During their research, the team showed real marketing and promotional materials associated with autonomous vehicles to more than 700 Americans. The materials were taken from companies such as Toyota, Intel and Uber.

The research team had found companies and the media using a range of different names for the technology, including autonomous vehicles, driverless cars, self-driving cars, robot cars and unmanned vehicles.

The team then altered the captions on promotional messages from autonomous vehicle companies to test how participants would respond to different names.

“Whenever there is something new like this, there is a battle for who gets to name it.”

A term like ‘self-driving cars’ seemed to dampen excitement among participants, found the researchers. “It makes it seem less neutral and more like a person than ‘driverless’ or ‘autonomous,’ which may creep some people out a little bit,” said Myrick.

Send me Driverless Weekly

The researchers warned that companies, policy-makers, reporters and consumer groups should be aware of the impact of media on public opinion, saying that early communication can shape future understanding of a technology.

“Whenever there is something new like this, there is a battle for who gets to name it,” said Myrick. “A part of the goal of this study was to highlight what’s currently in the media and how it impacts audiences. How does it get them engaged?”

Another area explored by the team was the use of celebrities in advertising by autonomous vehicle companies. Although aimed at easing some of the anxiety consumers can feel when dealing with new technologies, said the researchers, they found that the presence of celebrities in such advertising had little effect for most audiences.

Instead, their emotions about the technology set the likelihood of them being happy to share the road with driverless cars.

“Using celebrities only worked well for people who were already really into novel technology,” said Myrick. “The celebrities were effective in making what we call ‘novelty seeking’ consumers even more excited and more curious about these vehicles.”