Graduate students at the University of Michigan are taking on a challenge experts in the automotive industry will be grappling with in the coming years -- how to rebound from media backlash following an autonomous vehicle error.
Thirty teams of four to six students from across the Ann Arbor, Mich., campus are role-playing a high-stakes crisis scenario at the helm of their imagined autonomous vehicle startup, vying for a $3,000 scholarship as part of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business' annual Leadership Crisis Challenge.
Students learn the details of their crisis scenario much as a traditional company would -- via social media and internal communications including email, phone calls and in-person meetings. They have 24 hours, which started Thursday afternoon, to mitigate their crisis, attempting to generate business solutions in a news-cycle-length time crunch.
Brian Flanagan, managing director of the school's Sanger Leadership Center and lead event organizer, said participants never again will have the opportunity to practice leadership at this level when the cost of failure is so low.
"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 wrote in an email to Automotive News.
"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."
While the students are acting out a scenario, the complexities and risks of delivering an autonomous future are all too real. Accidents and fatalities involving autonomous vehicles are inevitable, even if significantly reduced. Without a driver to blame, Flanagan said, "The businesses and business leaders who produce the technology will be squarely in the crosshairs."
Automakers are investing major dollars in Silicon Valley self-driving startups in an industry push toward autonomous ride-hailing services. Volkswagen and Hyundai Motor Co. said this month that they were collaborating with Silicon Valley self-driving startup Aurora Innovation to integrate the technology into upcoming models. General Motors pledged in November to launch commercial autonomous vehicles at scale by 2020.
Some companies already have practice in braving media storms resulting from self-driving snafus. Tesla Inc. faced scrutiny after a fatality in May 2016 that stemmed from a Model S driver using Autopilot technology, stirring the boiling pot of public opinion regarding safety concerns in self-driving vehicles.
When the competition concludes Friday, the teams will present their crisis management plans to a board of directors made up of school faculty and executives.
Three finalist teams will face a panel of journalists Friday at a press conference at Michigan Stadium, where the winning team will be selected and awarded the $3,000 scholarship. Each runner-up team will receive $1,000.
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