Students Role-play Autonomous Driving Tragedy Before Automakers Have To

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
students role play autonomous driving tragedy before automakers have to

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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2 of 18 comments
  • 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?

  • SilverCoupe I am one of those people whose Venn diagram of interests would include Audis and Formula One.I am not so much into Forums, though. I spend enough time just watching the races.
  • Jeff S Definitely and very soon. Build a hybrid pickup and price it in the Maverick price range. Toyota if they can do this soon could grab the No 1 spot from Maverick.
  • MaintenanceCosts Would be a neat car if restored, and a lot of good parts are there. But also a lot of very challenging obstacles, even just from what we can see from the pictures. It's going to be hard to justify a restoration financially.
  • Jeff S Ford was in a slump during this era and its savior was a few years away from being introduced. The 1986 Taurus and Sable saved Ford from bankruptcy and Ford bet the farm on them. Ford was also helped by the 1985 downsize front wheel drive full sized GM cars. Lincoln even spoofed these new full size GM cars in an ad basically showing it was hard to tell the difference between a Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile. This not only helped Lincoln sales but Mercury Grand Marquis and Ford Crown Victoria sales. For GM full size buyers that liked the downsized GM full size 77 to 84 they had the Panther based Lincoln Town Cars, Mercury Grand Marquis, and Ford Crown Victorias that were an alternative to the new GM front wheel drive full size cars that had many issues when they were introduced in 1985 and many of those issues were not resolved for several years. The Marks were losing popularity after the Mark Vs.
  • SCE to AUX Toyota the follower, as usual. It will be 5 years before such a vehicle is available.I can't think of anything innovative from them since the Gen 1 Prius. Even their mythical solid state battery remains vaporware.They look like pre-2009 General Motors. They could fall hard.