Students Role-play Autonomous Driving Tragedy Before Automakers Have To

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

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]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Heino Heino on Jan 14, 2018

    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?

  • Toy Maker Toy Maker on Aug 20, 2018

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

  • Steve Biro Frankly, while I can do without Eyesight and automatic start-stop, there is generally less B-S with Subarus in terms of design, utility and off-road chops than with many other brands. I just hope that when they adopt Toyota’s hybrid system, they’ll also use Toyota’s eCVT.
  • The Oracle These are all over the roads in droves here in WNC. Rarely see one on the side of the road, they are wildly popular, capable, and reliable. There is a market for utilitarian vehicles.
  • Stephen My "mid-level" limited edition Tonino Lambo Ferraccio Junior watch has performed flawlessly with attractive understated style for nearly 20 years. Their cars are not so much to my taste-- my Acura NSX is just fine. Not sure why you have such condescension towards these excellent timepieces. They are attractive without unnecessary flamboyance, keep perfect time and are extremely reliable. They are also very reasonably priced.
  • Dana You don’t need park, you set auto hold (button on the console). Every BMW answers to ‘Hey, BMW’, but you can set your own personal wake word in iDrive. It takes less than 5 minutes to figure that that out, btw. The audio stays on which is handy for Teams meetings. Once your phone is out of range, the audio is stopped on the car. You can always press down on the audio volume wheel which will mute it, if it bothers you. I found all the controls very intuitive.
  • ToolGuy Not sure if I've ever said this, or if you were listening:• Learn to drive, people.Also, learn which vehicles to take home with you and which ones to walk away from. You are an adult now, think for yourself. (Those ads are lying to you. Your friendly neighborhood automotive dealer, also lying to you. Politicians? Lying to you. Oh yeah, learn how to vote lol.)Addendum for the weak-minded who think I am advocating some 'driver training' program: Learning is not something you do in school once for all time. Learning how to drive is not something that someone does for you. It is a continuous process driven by YOU. Learn how to learn how to drive, and learn to drive. Keep on learning how to drive. (You -- over there -- especially you, you kind of suck at driving. LOL.)Example: Do you know where your tires are? When you are 4 hours into a 6 hour interstate journey and change lanes, do you run over the raised center line retroreflective bumpers, or do you steer between them?