In case you weren’t paying attention: There are robots on the horizon. Some of them want to drive your car. And the horizon isn’t far off, either. Many automotive manufacturers suggest that we’ll be sharing the road with autonomous vehicles in the next three to five years. Aside from marking a major technological development, the onset of autonomous vehicles also promises strides in mobility for those unable to drive, and in congestion-management for an increasingly urban global population. But on the eve of innovation, consumers are reluctant to buy in.
A recent J.D. Power study found that doubts about driverless vehicles have increased since 2016, particularly among the youngest and the oldest car buyers. In a survey of 8,500 people who purchased or leased a new vehicle within the past five years, the study showed that compared 2016, 11 percent more Gen Zers (born 1995-2004) and 9 percent more pre-boomers (born before 1946) “definitely would not” trust software to take the wheel. Forty percent of baby boomers see nothing to like about the prospect of self-driving cars and trucks.
The data defies conventional wisdom, said Kristin Kolodge, executive director of driver interaction and HMI research at J.D. Power, in a press release. “In most cases, as technology concepts get closer to becoming reality, consumer curiosity and acceptance increase,” she said. “With autonomous vehicles, we see a pattern where trust drives interest in the technology; and, right now, the level of trust is declining.”
That lack of trust does not stem from a lack of information. Media old and new serve up regular dispatches about emerging changes in how we get from points A to B. The messages range from giddy anticipation to anxious doubt to cool consideration of new business opportunities. The common theme is that, like it or not, we are destined to cede control to software and settle in as backseat drivers.
Paving the Road for Robots
Although it’s impossible to know how consumer sentiments will ultimately evolve, the auto and tech industries are deeply invested in normalizing driverless mobility. Established firms and clever startups form alliances and road-test their creations, evaluating how best to claim shares of a sector with more than $9 trillion in annual revenue.
And despite persistent doubts about safety and trustworthiness, AI is making significant inroads with car buyers. The same J.D. Power study that revealed mounting skepticism among all but Gen Yers (1977-1994) also noted that six of the top-10 features car shoppers value most are smart technologies, such as emergency braking and steering assistance. Younger consumers show more enthusiasm than their elders for things like keyless entry and connected infotainment options linked to mobile devices (which is perhaps why Apple is now focused on the autonomous systems that enable automation rather than on building a car of its own).
Consumer Reports found that drivers who have experience using semi-autonomous features like adaptive cruise control, blind-spot sensors and parking assistance express high levels of satisfaction with the technology. Demand for connected tech, including infotainment systems, digital keys and internet-enabled navigation, continues to rise.
Selling the fully autonomous experience, however, may prove to be a different kind of challenge for marketers.
Will Road Trips Ever Be the Same?
For nearly a century, cars have connoted freedom, adventure, status and—perhaps more than anything else—autonomy. In advertising and popular culture, happy drivers steer shiny new models around treacherous curves and speed through sunny landscapes; well-groomed families and friends revel in the excitement of a new minivan excursion; confident guys sporting stubble and dusty boots power pickups from the job site into the wilderness.
Owning a car is the liberated antithesis to public transportation’s limited routes and schedules, a way of transcending travel among the mingled masses. Think of all the songs and movies you know that center on cars and the romance of the open road. What we drive expresses who we are and what we value nearly as much as the work we do or where we live. So what happens when we no longer control the machines themselves? If the vehicles are fully autonomous, what does that make us?
Learning to Sing New Songs
For the advertising industry, these are not merely existential questions, but strategic and tactical opportunities to reevaluate how consumers think about cars. Sales have dwindled in recent years and businesses all along the auto supply chain need to reckon with the fundamental value propositions that underpin their products. If independence and ownership cease to be the lures, what takes their place?
Many cars on the road today sport the kinds of semi-autonomous extras that should help persuade drivers to eventually accept autonomous—but are consumers making the rational leap from their beloved Bluetooth and park-assist to full autonomy? Nevertheless, it’s clear that a sea of change is underway in attitudes about personal transportation. Millennials, in particular, appear ambivalent about owning a car—or even having a driver’s license—preferring options for sharing, co-ownership or journey-based use. Connectivity, in the form of mobile devices and cloud services, may inform their identity the same way that driving did for their parents and grandparents. In fact, the auto industry is counting on it.
For marketing and other creative industries, the new automotive reality will likely bring important changes to the stories we tell and how we engage consumer desires. Vehicles driven by robots don’t appeal to the same qualities long associated with those piloted by consumers themselves. They are something else entirely, but what? What kinds of messaging will be most persuasive when cars no longer appeal to the “need for speed,” or sense of adventure?
“The story will have to shift,” says Alexander Jutkowitz, H+K U.S. CEO. That means marketers will need to steer away from tried-and-true images of drivers speeding through mountaintops and towards storytelling that makes efficiency sexy.
“The role of content marketing in helping educate the public about the potential of new technologies goes all the way back to Edison’s lightbulb, when Norman Rockwell painted scenes showing the benefits of electric light,” Jutkowitz says. “Now is the time for marketers to step in again.”