For the past year or more, the future of self-driving cars has replaced the internet of things as the trendy theme dominating most of the technology conferences I attend. Not only that, I’ve discovered it’s also become a great conversation-starter at dinner parties with my non-techy friends and family. I’ve become more than a little obsessed with the topic, reading anything I can get my hands on, quizzing my Lyft and Uber drivers, my dentist, manicurist, the cashier at the grocery store … you get the picture … because I’m absolutely fascinated by the differing perspectives presented by the technology community versus general consumers.

All this independent research has brought me to the conclusion that, while the people developing the technologies that make autonomous vehicles possible believe they’re making the world a better place, most consumers (and particularly car buffs) are not that enthusiastic about the idea. While they’re on board for Level 1 and 2 autonomy because of the added safety (most of today’s cars equipped with advanced driver assist systems are in these categories), they balk at the idea of fully autonomous vehicles, simply because they like to drive. Giving it up and relying on autonomous vehicles means relinquishing control of their destinies. And according to many experts, that’s what would have to happen, as there’s no way human-piloted and self-driving cars can safely share the same roads.

While the technology is just about ready for self-driving cars to hit the streets, the one thing that could hold up adoption is consumer buy-in. For every article I read evangelizing the benefits of autonomous vehicles, there’s another pointing out the pitfalls. And when questioned as consumers and not technologists, even the people working to make this happen aren’t so sure they like the idea of cars without a steering wheel.

As marketers representing technology companies that are investing billions to benefit from this growth market, what can we do to convince consumers that fully autonomous vehicles will change our lives for the better? The answer came to me as I listened to Intel’s Kathy Winter deliver her keynote at SEMICON West. Winter heads up the automated driving group at Intel, and just completed her first cross-country road trip in a fully autonomous vehicle. After touting the many benefits: It’s safer. The maps and logistics are better. It will lead to more vehicle sharing and therefore fewer cars on the road … Winter urged us all to “let go of the wheel and embrace the passenger economy.”

A future of self-driving cars

Our job is not convincing people that they don’t want to drive anymore. Our job is to promote a whole new culture: one where it’s sexier to be the passenger than the driver. Think of all the advantages! If we don’t have to drive, we have more time to get things done. We can have a few drinks with dinner without worrying about driving home. The elderly, blind, and physically disabled will experience new freedoms. Teenagers will be the easiest sell, as this generation isn’t as inclined to get its license as ours was. They can’t wait to sit back and enjoy their smartphone on wheels, while they get chauffeured wherever they desire. Parents of teens will also breathe a sigh of relief, and enjoy not being tethered to their child’s social life.

Most experts say it’ll be five years before we see full autonomy, although Elon Musk says Tesla will roll out self-driving in two. If your company aims to leverage this passenger economy, now’s the time to start working on that messaging. Let us know if you’d like Kiterocket’s support to explore strategies. We’ve got some ideas.

  • Stephen Wood

    Question – for this to work all the vehicles on the road will have to be autonomous. What will happen to all the existing cars on the road that are not autonomous? Are we looking at another federally funded cash for clunkers scheme to get them off the road? We know how well that worked for hybrid vehicles. In addition will the additional cost for this new technology prevent even more people in the lower socio economic classes from owning a vehicle and so create a larger ready made market for autonomous taxis and buses?

    • Francoise von Trapp

      Currently, it hasn’t actually been determined whether or not human-piloting would be outlawed, although many think that’s the only safe option we will have. Even Elon Musk tweeted that it will never be Tesla’s intention that people stop driving their own cars. If driving is ever outlawed, there would have to be some government buy-back put into place, but that is pure speculation on my part. A more likely scenario is that it full autonomy will take years to be adopted, as people replace their “klunkers” over time. We also see this as an opportunity for the development of after-market solutions that converts them into self-driving cars. Some of these solutions already exist.

      To your second question – yes, especially with the first generation of fully autonomous vehicles, the cost of self-driving vehicles will limit who can own them. Initially, we’ll see autonomy in fleet vehicles, and adoption in urban areas where public transportation is already the norm. Many believe that as the culture shifts to a passenger economy, and robot-taxis are more readily available, there will be less of a need or desire to own your own vehicle.

  • Nick Gullett

    Hi Francoise, I agree with everything you stated. I too have been discussing this subject with both techie and non techie friends. I do believe the adoption of the technology will be generational, younger and early adopters will accept the new technology first. I find older people often tell me “I don’t know if i like the idea of letting a computer drive me” My response to this is ” Well i would feel safer with computers driving us than some of the people on the road today” I do think Manual switches will be in cars early on and there will be zones where you can drive your ” Classic Cars” with retrofitted self driving mechanisms. Thinking it through long term though, I believe the transportation model will change completely. Instead of car payments, you will pay leases, where cars will be at the ready to pick you and take you where you need to go in a minutes notice and you will not even have to own a car.

    • Francoise von Trapp

      Hi Nick, thanks for your comments! There is so much to consider with the transition to fully autonomous vehicles, isn’t there? It’s not like adding a new option, such as with hybrid/electric vehicles. How will this impact families with young children who need car seats, for instance. Those most difficult to convince of the benefits will be those who truly have a passion for driving!