Ronn Torossian, CEO, 5WPR
The State of California is cracking down on autonomous automobile manufacturers, asking for additional data and more specific information from test analysis. “Self-driving” car companies, including Google-affiliated Waymo and Cruise, owned by General Motors, are pushing back against the new requirements.
California officials recently released information demonstrating that Waymo and Cruise had the “fewest number of test miles between disengagements” according to Reuters and other media sources. These disengagements are defined as the times when “a human driver must intervene” or take control of a car from the autonomous system while driving on public roads.
In the industry, time between disengagements is a strong metric used to compare successful self-driving applications and systems. Past data measuring disengagement has been used as evidence that Waymo is further along than other companies in achieving the goal of predominantly automated driving.
In response to California’s request for more data, as well as previous reports that Waymo leads the sector, GM Cruise’s CEO Dan Ammann cautioned reporters not to read too much into published data points, saying there is “no really great way to track” the system development progress, other than by trusting internal company data.
On its face, this read as a bit noncommittal and perhaps dismissive, so industry media went back to the data, offering this, which was given to California officials by the companies: Waymo’s miles before disengagement increased to 13, 219 from 11,017 year-to-year, while Cruise showed even more improvement, jumping to 12,221 from 5,205.
Given the major improvement, California requested additional data to support these reports. Meanwhile, industry insiders, such as Mark Rosekind, who currently serves as chief safety innovation officer for Zoox, another self-driving startup, explained the increases by arguing that “not all miles are created equal…” Rosekind added that his company “more than doubled” the number of test miles last year, before explaining just how Zoox made those strides.
In the end, a lot of these stories boil down to how statistics are presented and how they’re used in context. From a PR perspective, the emphasis is usually – and should be – on the interpretation of these data points, not specifically the numbers. The message takeaway should be “Look at how we’re improving” or “Check out this progress!” not, “Hey, these specific numbers are great, so here are more and more numbers!”
Too many numbers in a report can lead to message confusion, creating a situation where the news could be tremendous, but the audience is left without a definitive takeaway from the message. The lesson, then, is to focus on the bottom line narrative, then to support that message with the data from the perspective of the brand.