By on January 12, 2018

autonomous hardware

Graduate students from the University of Michigan are currently engaged in a twisted role-playing game, where they attempt to cope with the media backlash following various failures of self-driving cars. The exercise is intended to help them understand the pitfalls associated with autonomous tech and how to best respond when it goes terribly awry — something automakers will also have to go through as self-driving vehicles become more prevalent.

Broken into teams of four, 30 groups across the Ann Arbor campus were confronted with a pretend automated tragedy last night. The details were delivered to them in much the same way they would have been to a real manufacturer: through phone calls, emails, social media, and in-person meetings.

They have until tonight to mitigate the fallout from the incident, generating business solutions in a faux 24-hour news cycle. 

The 30 teams are also competing for a $3,000 scholarship, part of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business’ annual Leadership Crisis Challenge. Brian Flanagan, managing director of the school’s Sanger Leadership Center and lead event organizer, explained to Automotive News that it’s an opportunity to practice leadership without the chance high-stakes fallout. Out in the real world, they’ll never have that cushion.

“There is significant uncertainty about how the industry will take shape around autonomous vehicles, what factors will differentiate winners from losers in the marketplace, what legal and regulatory infrastructure will evolve, and how it will all ultimately impact society,” Flanagan explained. “In other words, not only do students have a crisis to contend with, they must do so within the context of an emerging industry and all of its uncertainties.”

In the scenario, the students all possess leadership roles at Dryyver  — a fake driverless car company that offers an Uber-like ride-haling service. At the start of simulation, Dryyver is about to announce its first successful rollout of an autonomous fleet of taxis. There’s even a phony commercial for the pretend company.

Everything is going swimmingly. But then, in the early evening, reports begin streaming in that a cyclist was involved in serious accident with one of the vehicles and the story is picked up on social media and local media outlets. Initial reports point to one of Dryyver’s taxis failing to stop for the cyclist.

The exercise is brimming with semi-hysterical examples of board members coming down hard on the team and a worst-case media response. But the students are supposed to treat the entire situation as if it were real.

Eventually, the pretend woman on the bicycle pretend dies and the fake press smells blood. (The report was intentionally scheduled to occur late at night to throw students, who had spent the entire day working on their presentations to the board, a massive curveball.)


Public outrage builds all morning and an investigative report surfaces that attributes the company’s corporate culture as the cause of the accident. Still in the midst of this faux hell, the participating students now must present their case to an angry board.

While the students are merely acting out a scenario, the complexities and risks of delivering an autonomous fleet are genuine. Automakers have to deal with this kind of thing for real. Without a driver to blame, Flanagan said, “The businesses and business leaders who produce the technology will be squarely in the crosshairs.”

A couple of companies have already received a small taste of what that’s like. Uber saw one of its autonomous test vehicles wreck in Tempe, Arizona, last year and Tesla Motors was forced to explain why one of its customers died when his Autopilot-controlled vehicle plowed into a semi-trailer on a Florida highway in 2016. However, both of those incidents were ultimately blamed on human error.

The three finalist teams face a panel of journalists Friday at a press conference at Michigan Stadium. The winning team gains the $3,000 scholarship. Each runner-up team recieves $1,000.

[Image: Ford Motor Company]

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18 Comments on “Students Role-play Autonomous Driving Tragedy Before Automakers Have To...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Just as the comedy movie Office Space is really more like a documentary of office life, this exercise of a fake scenario is probably going to play out in real life.

  • avatar

    So this is a spin exercise rather than an engineering exercise? So I guess now we know where the worthless talking heads get their training.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, why bother with an engineering competition, what does that get you? The real value is in public relations and managing public perception. Value is in image, not product.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah, well…this is pre-emptive.

        Channeling the SJWs to start defending the indefensible, and never realize that they’re just doing the dirty work of a large corporation. Only difference is, this large corporation exists ONLY through CRONY-CORPORATE CONNECTIONS.

  • avatar
    Stanley Steamer

    Human error = having faith in the system.

  • avatar

    “It was the cyclist’s fault. They crossed in the wrong direction.”

    “It was the sensor’s fault. The subcontractor didn’t meet the specs.”

    “It was the city’s fault. The intersection was not properly marked.”

    But it will never, ever be the “autonomous car’s” fault. Ever.

  • avatar


    University of Michigan announces the Winning Strategic Solutions!

    Gold “Planned Obsolescence of Facts and Circumstance” by CNN & MSNBC

    Silver “Dossier of Denials” by Clinton Foundation

    Bronze “Social Movements Cannot be Sued” by Vaccine Makers

  • avatar

    This reminds me of the time when Chrysler waited on pins and needles to see the results of the first head-on crash between two air bag equipped cars. This, too, will pass.

  • avatar

    Ah, the old turning BS into re-purposed bovine waste.

  • avatar

    A panel of journalists. It’ll indeed be high praise for the “winner”.

  • avatar
    tod stiles

    I think this is terrific. It’s preparing for the world as it is instead of what we wish it to be. No, this isn’t “just going to pass”, it’s just the beginning. If auto makers and the tech companies are really going to roll out autonomous cars they better get ready and think things through. And yeah a panel of journalists judging is a good idea, that’s how you get your story out. Like it or not.

    Sooner or later the wrong person (ie one with money and time) will be involved in an accident with an AC and instead of just sucking it up like many want they will litigate and things will become very difficult.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX


    • 0 avatar

      Spin, deceit and distortion and deflection, are “terrific….preparing for the world as it is”? Only if you belive the masses are cattle, needing to be herded as they’re led to the slaughter line.

      When we dispensee with truth, honesty, integrity and transparency, we make the modern world as we know it, impossible. What comes of it, is a dystopian post-modernist totalitarian system – and personal transport, and the tools that allow it, are not part of what the Elites will for their lessers.

      • 0 avatar
        tod stiles

        Nobody said anything about “spin, deceit and distortion…” It’s about reality. It’s about how business is run. How to sell and return profits. It’s about shareholders and the running of an enterprise. It’s OK if you don’t like it but most see why PR is necessary especially when things potentially go wrong.

        The waving your arms and say “I’m right because I said so” just doesn’t work with most people and is defiantly not going to work in any kind of litigation situation. I’m sure you don’t like that either but that’s how it goes. You need to be able to back up your argument and yes in some circumstances you are going to need PR.

        The business of building, selling and yes, defending autonomous cars is going to be an enormous job with many unknowns and I think it’s good that someone is thinking about and educating others about it.

  • avatar

    Trying to think of how a robo-taxi that hits a cyclist is any different from a regular taxi? Aaaaaand that is why I’m not in public relations.

  • avatar

    What if you are trying to flee? (personal safety or as a criminal). Does the machine enable your safety or abet in your criminal activity? Does the car notify the PD if you are under duress? Is there such a thing as autonomous ethics?

  • avatar
    Toy Maker

    Any updates to this?
    Comparison to the UBER incident to March 2018?

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