Who Is Ultimately in the Driver’s Seat with Autonomous Vehicles?

iStock-898984004-autonomous-vehicles-300x188When Eddie Rabbitt sang “Drivin’ My Life Away” in 1980, he was chronicling the life of a roadie, of a life spent behind the wheel. At the time, autonomous driving vehicles were still a distant speck on the horizon of the information highway. Today, we are on the cusp of a revolution that offers a near future where no one will have to spend his or her life behind a wheel. As always, the future carries new concerns, dangers and legal developments. We have already seen our first accidents and fatalities related to autonomous driving, and the regulatory and liability landscape is quickly setting context for this new technology—twenty-two states and Washington, D.C., have enacted legislation related to autonomous vehicles (with more pending).

According to many historians, the world’s first auto accident case occurred in Ohio City, Ohio, in 1891. Publications like Forbes have predicted that 10 million autonomous vehicles will be on the road by 2020, and that the numbers will increase exponentially each year thereafter, with 1 in 4 cars being autonomous driving vehicles by 2035. If these predictions come in close to the mark, the century-old car crash lawsuit will undergo rapid and marked changes in the next few years. And while much ink has been spilled about the emerging regulatory framework and the shifting liability parameters around this new industry, it’s a good time to consider the inevitable intersection of autonomous driving technology and social media.

Social media will be both friend and foe of the autonomous driving industry thanks to what is already an emerging tight integration between autonomous driving vehicles and our awareness (and documentation) of them. As a result, when that collision with one or more autonomous driving vehicles occurs in Ohio City, Ohio, in 2021 instead of 1891, social media will be a star witness.

As already shown by some early crashes with autonomous driving vehicles, witnesses outside the cars involved immediately post photos and accounts of the accidents on multiple social media outlets. These posts are highly relevant and useful eyewitness accounts that can and will be used to sort out liability.

More importantly, players like Apple and Google already rely on the social media-fueled data nexus in the integration of their particular technologies into autos, and both have some level of plans to produce or co-produce autonomous driving vehicles where access to social media will be ever present. True autonomous driving solves the growing problem of distracted driving once and for all, which would in turn make reliance on the internet even more ubiquitous for the driver who now is just a passenger. Though it may be debatable as to whom—passenger or driver—is more aware of the events leading up to a crash, the car itself, independent of the passenger, will be connected to traffic, weather apps and the like in ways that will yield real-time information on conditions at the moment of the crash. It is not too hard to envision a future where one of the first steps in an accident investigation involving a fatality will be to download the car’s onboard computer data.

Perhaps more important to the development of the industry will be the ability of social media analytics to provide actionable insights about testing and trials and early use of autonomous driving vehicles. It’s easy to see the benefit and effect of certain apps on particular industries—take Yelp for the food and beverage industry, for example—but social media users in all market segments are posting about autonomous driving vehicles. Facebook, Google Plus, CafeMom, Gather, Twitter, Tumblr, Posterou, Wikipedia, WikiTravel, Flikr, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Vimeo, Viddler, Blog Talk radio, Ustream, Livestream, Facebook Places, Foursquare, Yelp and more—all currently provide insights into how this fledgling industry is developing and being perceived by the very people it will need to support it. The ability to aggregate and analyze this data will yield key insights into brand management, marketing, operations, product development, public policy, risk management and more.

As a result, it seems a certainty that as the autonomous driving vehicle industry hits the road, it will have a co-pilot—“Like!” it or not.