24 Jul 2016

How driverless cars can become commonplace

The badge on the hood will represent an immersive experience.

Tim Gosman, Strategy

Experts say there will be more than 10 million driverless vehicles on the road by 2020, and several manufacturers (such as Daimler, Kia, and Mercedes) are currently testing models in Nevada and California. With the potential to solve urban congestion, parking problems and provide better mobility for the elderly and lower-income residents, it’s easy to see the appeal of autonomous vehicles to both the local authorities, and the public at large. The federal government has also proposed investing heavily in the transition. Last month at The North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx revealed a 10-year, nearly $4 billion investment plan to accelerate the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation by establishing real-world pilot projects.

For automotive brands, these developments represent both a challenge to the existing relationships they have with their drivers, but also an opportunity on which they can capitalize. In particular, those brands that have anchored their propositions on providing a superior driving experience will need to rethink what that means if everyone becomes a passenger. If the thrill of being behind the wheel becomes obsolete, what will “the ultimate driving machine” offer? How can these brands convince drivers to take a back seat?

Safety first

The single biggest concern associated with self-driving cars is that they will be less safe than today’s vehicles. Nearly 33,000 people in the U.S. died in motor vehicle accidents in 2014, an average of 90 deaths a day, and another two million are injured as a result of car accidents every year. Washington D.C.’s nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation estimates over 90% of all crashes are due to human error. Despite this statistic, 75% of survey respondents believe they can drive better than a computer.

Early results from Google’s self-driving car tests are eye-opening and suggest this consumer self-confidence is misplaced. The Google prototypes have covered more than 1.4 million miles on public roadways — the equivalent of 100 years of driving for the average person — with only 17 accidents to date, all caused by human error (save one minor fender bender.) A McKinsey report also predicts that the widespread adoption of self-driving vehicles could eliminate 90% of all auto accidents in the U.S., preventing up to $190 billion in damages and health costs annually.

Whatever the numbers say, clearly the onus is on brands to overcome this consumer skepticism. Some brands are forming partnerships to develop driverless cars that, if marketed correctly, could help correct the misconception that computers are bad drivers. Last year, Nissan turned to NASA to help design a zero-emission, autonomous vehicle, hoping that enlisting the group that landed a man on the moon could convince reluctant Americans to trust their self-driving, earth-bound vehicles.

Our very own Alfred

But improved safety is not the only boon of driverless cars. Over time, the entire transport experience could be redefined. Once the consumer is distanced from the act of driving, there is huge potential for automotive brands to create immersive and highly personalized passenger experiences.

Imagine using your cell phone to instruct your car to collect you, and that it automatically syncs with your calendar and traffic data to ensure it and you always arrive on time. Hardly a stretch when you consider that Tesla’s software already includes a function called “Summon,” which fetches the vehicle from your garage when you need it. Within two years, the firm claims Summon will be able to retrieve cars from almost any distance, meaning no more paying through the nose for a surge-priced Uber.

And the convenience and customization doesn’t need to stop there. Maybe you ask Siri to have a skinny, four-shot almond-milk latte waiting for you when you climb inside, or to ensure the latest Pixar film is queued up and ready to go so you can keep the kids quiet and content on a long drive? Want to ensure the car is toasty warm on a sub-zero winter’s day? Well, we can already remotely control the temperature of our homes and offices using Nest thermostats, so it’s really not much of a leap to consider this type of opportunity for driverless cars, too.

Clearly, the interactive opportunities are almost endless, and it’s no surprise that 77% of people now think technology is now more important than color when it comes to choosing a car. It’s what’s inside that counts, and your options increase exponentially once you no longer need to keep one eye on the road.

Win with experience

The University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute predicts that once self-driving cars are widely adopted, U.S. car ownership could reduce by up to 43%. When personalization can be infinite and instantaneous, consumers will arguably have less of a need to own their vehicle, and instead can select the brand, model, and experience that best suits their needs at any specific moment. Take a trip to the beach and an SUV rolls up, with a roof rack ready for your surfboard. Off to an anniversary dinner, and this time, it’s a luxury coupé with champagne on ice.

This means car manufacturers need to make carefully calculated decisions about the brands with which they partner to deliver the optimal driverless experience for their target consumers, and ensure they stay loyal. While some may want a “Pimp My Ride” experience full of high-octane entertainment, others may look for a vehicle that promises more family-friendly partnerships or an opportunity to work without distractions.

As driverless cars become commonplace, the badge on the hood will represent a whole lot more than an engine and aesthetics. It will indicate an immersive experience that brings consumers into contact with vast array of brands, all of which have the potential to delight or deter. It’s those brands that pick their partners most judiciously that will ensure they win the race for these backseat drivers.

This article originally appeared in Branding Magazine