The rise of driverless cars: how to keep marketers and manufacturers in the driver’s seat

driverless car

In the early days of auto, cars were called “horseless carriages” – a term that spoke more to what cars lacked versus the innovative features they had. Similarly, the early mobile phones were simply known as “wireless” because they did not have the obvious wires of their predecessors. Today, we call them smartphones because they are so much more than just wireless devices.

We’ve come a long way from horseless carriages, but we are still focusing on what’s missing when we talk about next great frontier – driverless cars. We have yet to imagine what this new way of ‘driving’ will look like, so cannot yet give it a name. Companies like Toyota, Airbus, Google and Uber are investing and experimenting with flying cars and countries like France, Germany and India are making bold claims to ban petrol and diesel vehicles within the next decade. It’s clear tech-enabled, driverless cars are in our very near future, but the race to win for marketers and manufacturers will be as much about how we market the driverless vision to drivers as it will be about getting the technology onto the roads. Why, you ask?

Breaking the Need for Speed

Firstly, driving is ingrained in our culture. We were raised on films where cars played leading roles. As teenagers, we yearned to learn to drive so that we could get our first taste of freedom. Eventually over time, we drove so often that it became second nature – almost a part of who we are. To change that behavior so fundamentally and ask people NOT to drive will be one of the biggest behavioral shifts ever.

Traditional carmakers seemingly have an advantage over new entrants because their iconic brands have become ingrained our culture. BMW, Peugeot, Toyota, Volkswagen and Jaguar are all hardwired into our consciousness as drivers that it is very hard to break that connection. Their strong brand value will give them an edge as they appeal to consumers to make the mental and behavioral shift. However, game changers like Tesla, who have witnessed explosive growth over the past decade, may give these established brands a run for their money. Now is the time for traditional car brands to introduce and normalize driverless cars with their existing buyers, so they’re not left in the dust of their competitors. Toyota, for example, recently announced that it was backing startup Cartivator Resource Management, who is exploring aerial solutions and revealed an early prototype of a flying car that would make its debut at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Building Trust

The second reason is that there are certain associations with driverless cars that people will find difficult to trust and that marketing will have to overcome. These new cars are essentially artificially intelligent learning machines that are so full of technology that it’s almost as if the drivers are sitting inside of a robot. Safety concerns will rise, despite the fact that driverless cars are actually safer than those driven by humans. That rational argument will not play with people who trust their own instincts better than that of a machine. There will also be increasing concerns around the security and usage of the data collected and the potential for someone to hack your car.

Again, traditional car companies have a leg up – particularly those who have heavily invested in safety credentials for so long. They will just need to broaden their definition of “safety” to include not only engineering safety, but also data safety as well. Creating visible partnerships with the right companies now will also help traditional car companies bridge that gap. This is clearly happening already (BMW and Nissan with Microsoft, Ford and Alexa, Hyundai and Google) but communicating these partnerships now will help to begin to establish the brand extension required for the future.

Changing the Way We Ride

The third reason is one of imagination. If no-one is driving, what is life like in a car when we are all passengers? Ignoring, for now, some of the technical issues with content delivery (even via 5G combined with V2X technology), without the issue of distraction effecting how you drive, the inside of the car opens itself up to all sorts of possibilities turning it into a mobile living room, dining room, cinema, office, studio – or a multi-purpose “auto-room.” Internal screens will create new ‘facing in’ experiences and augmented or mixed reality windows will create new ‘facing out’ experiences and interactions between passengers will change as their orientation in the car becomes unlimited. Car automation and connectivity will also transform the experience beyond the physical journey itself. As cars become fully integrated into the rest of our digital lives the interaction between car and home, other cars, the city, people and businesses will fundamentally change the ecosystem that sits around the car itself. The value chain around automation will go in multiple directions and how car companies respond to that, as well as which parts they choose to own versus partner will be critical to their success.

Who Owns the Operating System

Who owns the operating system upon which these new experiences are built will ultimately have the greatest opportunity to win the imagination around driverless cars and, therefore, create the vision of what a world looks like with them. Car buyers nowadays believe that technology is far more important than car color, so car manufacturers may play a supporting role in the future of automotive.

To win, car makers must focus now on establishing the right type of platform on which other experiences can sit. In order to do this, they must fundamentally change their model in a number of ways:

1. Start using data now to build more frequent interactions with owners as machine learning and more frequent data feeds will become your position of strength as the platform on which other experiences can be built.

2. Find ways through premium experiences of locking that data to the car itself to create stickiness.

3. Build partnerships with the content providers that will enhance the new experiences in the ‘auto-room,’ such as retailers, real-estate agents, travel brokers and media companies. These partnerships should do more than distribute messaging, but instead enhance their product and service offering.

Given the driver is a more enduring and attractive archetype than the passenger carmakers have to immediately start to help people to understand what is the other side of the transition from driver to driverless. They must start to normalize the experience through their brands’ position in culture. They must begin to extend their brands into new areas of safety and security beyond the car itself. And they must shift their model from manufacturer to platform and build partnerships to enhance the passenger experience into new areas.

And perhaps, they need to find a new name for the car.

Richard Hartell is global president, business transformation - ‎Publicis Media

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