A few weeks ago, Adweek‘s Chris Heine asked me how soon Americans will accept self-driving cars — or vehicles that do all the driving while everyone in the car kicks back and enjoys the ride, freed up to bury our noses in our mobile phones, watch movies on longer drives, and do all the other things passengers do. I responded that many Americans are acting already as if they’re behind the wheel of a self-driving car, judging from the number of distracted drivers I see texting, reading, fussing with their kids, and, well, basically doing all the other things passengers do.
Silicon Valley and Detroit are bringing self-driving cars to our lives sooner than you think, as I discuss in a new blog post for SIM Partners. And I believe I believe a critical mass of consumers — enough to support the uptake of driverless cars — will accept autonomous vehicles as soon as automakers make them commercially viable and demonstrate how safe they are.
As I write in my post (which focuses on the marketing implications of self-driving cars), driverless cars are expected to be hitting our roads in 2020, and a number of developments are hastening the process. The two vanguards of autonomous driving, Google and Tesla, have generated plenty of headlines, and justifiably so, for making self-driving cars real and achievable. But the behemoths of the traditional model, the big automakers, are making breakthroughs, too. General Motors recently announced with Lyft a $500 million partnership that includes a self-driving service. At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Ford announced it is testing a self-driving car in poor weather conditions, thus tackling what is considered to be an impediment to driverless performance (which Google had been testing already). Mercedes-Benz rolled out the 2017 semi-autonomous E-class sedan, thus bridging between the world we know today and the one that’s coming (as Tesla is doing with semi-autonomous cars).
That so many automakers are adapting to a new role of “mobility company” (to cite words used by Jeremiah Owyang in January 12 VentureBeat article) tells me how real the autonomous world is. Legacy brands shaped by 20th Century assumptions are embracing a 21st Century business model instead of fighting it.
Are consumers ready for self-driving cars, though? I think the answer depends on a number of factors, including where you live and your emotional attachment to the idea of driving a car. The World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group recently surveyed of city dwellers around the world and found that 52 percent Americans are likely or unlikely to try a self-driving car, with 17 percent neutral. But it stands to reason that city dwellers are going to be more open to trying self-driving cars given the hassles of city driving. In 2014, Pew Research conducted a similar survey that included a more broadly defined audience. Interestingly, 52 percent of city dwellers also said they wanted to ride in a driverless car, but only 36 percent of people in rural areas were interested. Overall, 50 percent of respondents were interested in a driverless experience, and 48 percent were not.
Reservations about self-driving cars are predictable, ranging from concerns about safety (“what if this car makes a mistake on the expressway, and I cannot stop it?”) to loss of control.
I think it’s interesting that in April 2014, 48 percent of the public was actually open to riding in a driverless car — that’s nearly half the population being open to riding in a driverless car even though we’ve been conditioned to accept a conventional driving experience for decades. In fact, we’re already adapting our behaviors to smarter cars that do everything from help us search to manage our media. The development of semi-autonomous cars from Mercedes-Benz and Tesla will help ease in the self-driving experience, but more affordable brands such as Ford would have more of an impact
With effective marketing and the introduction of cost-effective alternatives, I believe self-driving cars will first gain the trust of key demographic segments such as city dwellers and aging baby boomers who have the most to benefit from driverless vehicles. The future will arrive in stages.
And once that trust takes hold, there will be no turning back.
I am curious to see how soon driverless cars emerge, especially after, a few days ago, I dodged a distracted driver who careened the wrong way down a one-way street. Computers make mistakes, too. But I’ll take my chances.