Just how hot are self-driving cars? Recent developments are accelerating the popularity of autonomous vehicles — even as consumers express apprehension about them.

In recent weeks, notable industry alliances and legislation have suggested that auto dealers will need to become fluent in the language of self-driving cars sooner than you might think. For example:

  • On June 13, General Motors announced it has produced 130 Chevrolet Bolt EV self-driving vehicles, increasing the size of its self-driving test fleet to 180. GM has been testing Chevrolet Bolt EVs equipped with self-driving technology since June 2016. In January, GM became the first company to use mass-production methods for autonomous vehicles. Meanwhile, Ford indicates it will roll out autonomous vehicles in a commercial setting by 2021.
  • Also in June, Volvo and technology company Nvidia announced a partnership to develop software that uses artificial intelligence to make self-driving cars smarter with functions such as anticipating threats and recognizing objects around them. The software development will support Volvo’s efforts to have self-driving cars operational by 2021 (watch out, Ford). The announcement is significant for a few reasons. First, making self-driving cars smarter may address a nagging concern that consumers have about putting their faith in these kinds of vehicles. Second, the partnership represents the alliance being formed between OEMs and Silicon Valley firms in the race to be first to market with autonomous vehicles.
  • On July 27, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved legislation to allow automakers  to deploy up to 100,000 self-driving cars without meeting existing auto safety standards. In addition, the approved proposal bars states from imposing rules regulating self-driving cars. The legislation marks the first step to federal regulation of autonomous vehicles. By superseding state laws, the federal government would make it easier for automakers and technology developers to introduce self-driving cars faster and more efficiently.

But along with the positive news comes a cautionary report about consumer perceptions of self-driving cars. MIT recently unveiled a study that shows consumers have been losing trust in self-driving cars. As reported in Gas2, a news source for alternative transport:

“Most surprisingly, the largest decrease occurred among younger drivers. In 2016, 26% of respondents aged 16–24 reported they were comfortable with full autonomy. This year, that number dropped to 14%. Among those 25–34 years old, 40% were comfortable with full autonomy in 2016. For 2017, that number plunged to only 20%.”

Factors influencing the decline in trust include confusion over how self-driving cars work, a discomfort with the loss of control, and a perception that they are unsafe – perceptions that have no doubt been influenced by media coverage of self-driving car related deaths. As Gas2 noted, “Even though 42,000 Americans died in highway accidents in 2016, the press focused on two fatalities that took the lives of drivers who were driving Teslas in Autopilot mode — one in Florida and one in China.”

So despite the excitement coming from OEMs and Silicon Valley, consumers still require a lot of convincing. Auto dealers have an opportunity to embrace the future by being the voices of reason, neither hyping nor dismissing a future that includes self-driving cars. Auto salespeople can do their customers and themselves a service by:

  • Actively staying on top of developments with self-driving cars.
  • Talking with customers about them – asking customers what they know about self-driving cars and their perceptions, whether good or bad. A willingness to talk shop demonstrates a comfort level with change.
  • Being ready to answer questions and refer consumers to resources for further information, which again demonstrates savvy and knowledge.

Demonstrating an understanding of self-driving cars also shows leadership. You plant the seed in the customer’s mind that you are the kind of dealer who generally understands what’s on the horizon and are a helpful resource. The time is now to lead customers with your insight and willingness to discuss how the industry is evolving.