Some 40 years before Hanna-Barbera’s space-age cartoon “The Jetsons” hit American living rooms with its flying cars, the concept of a futuristic automobile began to take shape: Buried deep within the Dec. 28, 1926, Milwaukee Sentinel gossip columns was a report on the test drive of the “Phantom auto,” a driverless car with the ability to “start its own motor, throw in its clutch, twist its steering wheel, toot its horn, and even ‘sass’ the policeman at the corner.”
Now, nearly a century after its conception (and various incarnations since), the driverless car is poised to become a reality, with Boston Consulting Group predicting 12 million fully autonomous cars to be sold globally by 2035. Even sooner, Morgan Stanley predicts that by 2025 we will live in “a utopian world in which every car on the road will be autonomous.”
Automakers are gearing up to accommodate the inevitable coming of a driverless future. So are companies in the disruptive ride-sharing industry. For example, in late 2017 Uber inked a deal with Volvo to purchase 24,000 vehicles for its driverless fleet. In addition, Lyft earlier last year struck a research partnership with Alphabet’s Waymo, while also securing agreements with Ford and startups Nutonomy and Drive.ai to add self-driving cars to its fleet.
For automotive marketers who have long sold cars based on the “driving experience,” the advent of the autonomous vehicle presents an interesting branding challenge when the experience of driving is no longer the main message.
“Letting go of control of our cars goes against everything we’ve been taught since we began driving,” said Frank Ahrens, vice president of public relations firm BGR Group and former vice president of corporate global communications at Hyundai in Seoul. “Now car companies will be asking us to do exactly that. Not only are they going to have to produce safe autonomous vehicles, they’re going to have to do something even harder: Undo more than 100 years of social programming in our brains.”
To be sure, bypassing the new driverless competition won’t be easy, especially at the cusp of the transition, according to Nick Foley, president of brand consulting firm Landor’s Southeast Asia Pacific and Japan operations.
“‘Driverless car’ is such an ambiguous expression,” he told CMO.com. “Does it mean motorists sitting behind the wheel while the car drives itself–much like cruise control or automated parking? Or is it passengers being whisked around in a vehicle that only has seats facing one another without a steering wheel, throttle, or brake in sight?”
Foley recommended automotive marketers focus more on what motoring has always been about: freedom.
“Car ownership has always been an expression of independence,” he said. “Unlike public transport, the car enables people to be free from timetables and defined routes. Marketers of automobiles understand this well and have used ‘freedom’ as a core tenet when extolling the virtues of car ownership.”
When it comes to driverless cars, safety, of course, is a primary concern. Autonomous technology including Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS) could have a profound impact in Australia, where Monash University and Austroads researchers suggest that up to 30% to 50% of road fatalities could be prevented with the system’s adoption.
From a brand messaging perspective, BGR Group’s Ahrens said, messaging around safety should be a top priority for automotive marketers.
“The winning autonomous vehicle brands will be the ones that can successfully sell you on the idea that their product will improve your life,” he told CMO.com. “But their first branding challenge is proving their product won’t end your life.”
Uber’s partnership with “safety-first” Volvo demonstrates a recognition of that insight.
“Managed smartly, Volvo could easily transfer its safety reputation into driverless cars,” Ahrens said. “Your first question will be: ‘Is this safe?’ If it’s a Volvo, you’ll already know the answer.”
Toyota, the world’s biggest carmaker, is also keenly aware of the importance of emphasizing safety in driverless brand messaging.
“Our goal is to create a car that will never be responsible for a crash, regardless of what the driver does,” said Gill Pratt, head of the Toyota Research Institute, at a seminar in Toyota’s technical center near Brussels late last year.
Another important brand messaging strategy is an emphasis on what consumers can get done while being chauffeured by an autonomous vehicle.
According to a study by Columbia University, in the U.S. productivity gains from people working while in driverless cars would amount to $422 billion per year. That notion, as well as the gift of time, is a messaging-must for all marketers, Ahrens said.
“Driverless cars give you more time--time to work in the car, if you want, time to watch a game on the way home, more family time,” he said. “The car becomes a rolling lounge, and you’re the boss of your time.”
It could even be a sleep pod or mobile movie theatre, as suggested by China’s electric car maker NIO, which has been showcasing the spacious interior and touchscreens of the NIO Eve.
The influence of a growing Millennial market that is more environmentally conscious also calls for a greater emphasis on sustainability. Much of the pollution created by cars occurs when braking and reaccelerating excessively. Self-driving vehicles eliminate these factors. Creating awareness of the driverless car’s environmental benefits could very well present a competitive brand advantage over the model with a human behind the wheel.
While automotive marketers strategise about positioning their products in light of the past, present, and future of our roads, for observers such as Ahrens, driverless car messaging will also reach to the heart of even our most cherished rituals.
“If I’m lucky, I’ll never have to teach my 4-year-old to drive,” he said.