Autonomous Cars in 2018: The Future Will Be Humanized

The autonomous vehicle revolution isn’t coming. It’s here. And let’s face it. We’re all concerned.

If you grew up in the 1980s, you’ve probably heard of the TV show Knight Rider. If not, here’s a quick summary: David Hasselhoff plays a crime-fighting LA police detective that drives around saving the day in a 1982 Pontiac Trans Am. Except this isn’t any run-of-the-mill ’82 Pontiac. Embedded within it is KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand) – an artificially intelligent supercomputer that enables the car to act as a normal human would.

The Hoff had a peculiar, but often hilarious bond with KITT. To fans watching at home, KITT represented the first truly emotional and emotive car-human relationship. To the world, Knight Rider was the progeny of autonomous cars. To the automotive industry, this was only the beginning.

More than ever we are constantly reminded about the concept of driverless technology. Every other day we hear about Elon Musk waxing lyrical about the automotive revolution. Whether or not we like it – it’s here.Will it come in a whisper, or in a bang? It’s hard to tell at this stage. But there’s one thing we can tell: if 2017 is the year of autonomous cars, 2018 is going to be the year of how consumers feel about them.

And that’s what we discovered in our recent Altermotiv report. Contrary to what the industry thinks, consumers aren’t aligned with the thinking of most car brands. They believe that today’s car manufacturers will not be in the future driver’s seat. Traditional manufacturers are falling behind in the race to inherit the future of mobility. And they need to act on this now.

We hosted an Altermotiv event in London to try and gauge the public’s concerns and questions about autonomous technology. Unsurprisingly, they confirmed everything we discussed in our report.

What do people worry about the most? What were their thoughts on the automotive industry leaders? Here are some of the key questions and concerns they shared at the event:

Safety on the road and security online

It can be scary giving up control and putting your life in the hands of someone else – especially when that “person” is a computer program. The key question in many people’s minds is how much of our privacy and our security are we giving up in exchange for greater convenience?

Here are some of the fears people had about driverless vehicle safety:

How much control would I have?

Would the autonomous car know what to do in the event of an accident?

How will Big Data play into this? What will manufacturers use with my data?

How easy is it to hack into a car’s operating system?

Luxury for some but not all

As much as people love and talk about the latest electric car start-up, how many people do you know that actually own one? If there’s one thing we do know about the future of mobility, it won’t come without a price tag. People fear that this will create a new dependency that could create a deeper gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Here’s what people said about the fear of exclusivity:

If more expensive car manufacturers make better cars, then will poorer people be priced out?

Will a more expensive autonomous car provide a more comfortable experience?

Will autonomous cars end up being like phones? Will our choice reflect our social standing?

Will it be disguised as humanity?

In Knight Rider, when KITT was dropped in a vat of acid and “died,” it was just as dramatic and emotional for the audience as if he was a human. (Don’t worry; he was rebuilt in a later episode.) This passionate response leads one to ask: will a car feel like a member of the family or like a robotic stranger in the driver’s seat?

Here’s what people said about the concerns of an autonomous vehicle’s human-ness:

Would it have the emotional nuances of a real person? Could it talk back?

Can it be personalised?

Can I honestly trust a robot more than a human?

Perhaps car brands can’t blame Knight Rider for shaping the zeitgeist behind how we see autonomous vehicles. Perhaps only human nature is to blame. Either way, it’s clear that car manufacturers need to act with an emotionally driven approach to automation. If they want to build the next customer-centric car, rather than thinking for their customer (as they have traditionally done), they need to let their customers do the thinking instead.

Download our Altermotiv report here

Altermotiv Report Launch Event 2017

400 Consumers. 14 Industry Leaders. 2 Months. 5 Omnicom Agencies. 4 Insights.

Contrary to what the industry thinks, consumers aren't aligned with the thinking of most car brands.

We hosted an Altermotiv event in London to try and gauge the public's concerns and questions about autonomous technology. Unsurprisingly, they confirmed everything we discussed in our report.

Automotive branding: Shift up a gear or risk stalling

At every level, the automotive industry is under pressure: challenged by alternative business models, battered by scandals, wrestling with well-capitalised start-ups, the rise of electric and autonomous driving, and struggling with the migration from transport provider to experience creator.

From the car manufacturers to their sales partners, equipment providers to aftersales — each element of the automotive life cycle is being forced to change — and rapidly.

Increased urbanisation, reduced youth engagement, amplified environmental awareness and growing digitally activated experiences would each pose significant issues on their own. Compounded, they form the foundations of a crisis that will threaten the continued existence of brands within the automotive industry — Mitsubishi’s independence has already been claimed.

To survive and thrive in the face of these challenges, those brands need to work harder to be a consumer’s first choice. In automotive branding terms, those who redefine themselves first, best and most simply will win. There are four areas of focus automotive brands should consider:

1. A better journey

Performance is no longer the main territory on which car companies compete: these days nearly all cars drive, brake and handle so well that their owners will never come close to exploring their limits on ordinary roads. Safety and reliability are not differentiators either, as most cars have a fair claim to both. Owners may fall for the beautiful lines of their cars’ bodywork, but even the most infatuated petrolhead is not going to spend hours gazing at the object of his desire parked in the drive.

The real battleground is in automotive brand experience. As autonomous driving becomes a reality, in-car experiences will dominate consumer decision-making. Audi, Volvo and Mercedes have all realised this. SEAT is cleaning up in the mid-sector with its investment in excellent technology integration. Simple, intuitive experiences mirror and add to the ecosystem we already enjoy on our phones. It’s a rich, but also ultra-competitive territory.

2. A simpler relationship

Buying a car is still too painful. Digital customer experiences, dealership relationships and customer service infrastructure are entirely disconnected, backward or out-of-touch. Too many competing elements of the supply chain make the experience unhappy and confusing for consumers.

Now that Tesla and Volvo are changing their approaches to sales and challenging convention, the traditional champions of the sector will have to “up their game”. Seven year warranties and “just add fuel” deals are now table stakes.

The carmakers (and sellers) that win in the future will be the ones that focus on simpler, more intuitive sales experiences. Fewer, clearer finance options. Integrated and enjoyable buying experiences. Flexible purchase models. Highly trained experience consultants (rather than sales people) — “Consultative” will be the new watchword for the car industry.

3. A clearer brand purpose

Just as diesel and hybrid power plants are no longer cutting edge, electric propulsion cannot be a long-term differentiator. Most consumers will be unable to differentiate between cars with better range or quieter, more sustainably sourced motors.

Instead, automotive branding strategies should help brands define their essential purpose in this new world. Is it a forcible rejection of autonomous vehicles in favour of the thrill of driving? Is it the most comfortable, cosseting experience? Is it adding ease? Or could it be delivering unprecedented relaxation?

The traditional brand territories are muddied. Can the Ultimate Driving Machine be autonomous? Is Vorsprung Durch Technik a defendable position in a world of ubiquitous technology?

4. A more flexible experience

Are carmakers flexible enough to take active roles alongside governments and regions as they evolve at different rates? Regulation already means different sales models in different markets. How will they respond when some countries demand electric cars and autonomous driving while others take different approaches technologically or politically?

Is it a carmaker’s place to contribute to the conversation? Can they flex their business models to create hybrid rental and ownership models that give the consumer real control? Can they kill the rental car market? Will they combat the Uber challenge? The industry needs to answer these questions to thrive.

By 2022, the automotive industry landscape will be unrecognisable — 98% of cars will be connected to the Internet and goods will flow across nations in driverless trucks. Add-ons and skin-deep innovations won’t future-proof parts manufacturers or sales franchises as the industry gets less clear cut, more competitive and increasingly complex.

Reimagining their relevance to people, enterprise and governments will require brands to navigate the future with simple, rich ideas and experiences — creating a simpler, easier journey.


Geraint Jones is business development director at Siegel+Gale. Follow Geraint on Twitter: @gvlj

What carmakers need to learn from Nokia’s failure

What exactly is a connected car?

Is it a car that clumsily talks to your iPhone?

Is it a car that sends a stream of data to your insurance company, telling tales about your predilection for speeding on the A43?

Is it a car that talks thousands of times a second to satellites whizzing around the earth 12,550 miles above your head?

Is it a car that can play Netflix to your children through its headrests as you drive that unbearably long journey to your mother-in-law’s house?

Or is it a car that simply drives itself?

The Evolution of the Connected Car

10 years ago, the highest tech smartphone in the world was the upcoming Nokia N95…

Apple was still a maker of iPods. Google was a search engine. Tesla had just produced its first prototype roadsters. They were made by Lotus. They didn’t go very far on a single charge. There was no autopilot mode.

But over the intervening 10 years, I have gone from swearing loudly at an ineffective 2006 infotainment system that refused to connect to my iPod to expecting the next car I buy to be some fantasy amalgam of butler, chauffeur, personal assistant, masseuse and pathfinder.

Our definition of ‘connected car’ continues to morph, shift and expand. And carmakers have had very little to do with this change.

They have been passengers, dragged along in the wake of massively disruptive technologies that have appeared so quickly and changed our lives so much that their product development road maps and supply chains are only now beginning to catch up.

So, have our expectations of cars changed? Or have the changes wrought on other parts of our lives created a new set of expectations to add to the basic requirements?

To understand this, we have to go back to the beginning.

Learning from the Past

As originally imagined by Henry Ford, mass-produced motor vehicles were the democratisation of fast mass transport. From the 20s to Detroit’s heyday in the 50s and 60s, the car became simply a faster, more comfortable place to achieve the goal of getting from point A to point B, quickly. By the mid 1980s, Ford had turned this mass produced and simple approach to motoring into an astonishingly profitable enterprise — but the product was fundamentally the same.

Ford’s European range in 1986:

  • The Ford Fiesta (the small one)
  • The Ford Escort/Orion (the medium one)
  • The Ford Sierra (the family one)
  • The Ford Granada/Scorpio (the large one)
  • The Ford Capri

The industry had matured. Growth became harder — the 90s saw an array of poorly thought through mergers and acquisitions (BMW Rover anyone?) in the quest for growth through scale.

Once these either failed (or less frequently, succeeded), carmakers were left with innovation branding as their major route to growth. Like food and drink manufacturers, they found themselves singularly unable to grow sales of existing products any further — new products, based on existing architecture would have to do.

So, they ‘innovated’. The advent of the SUV was a lifeline that every single manufacturer (including, most famously, Porsche) grasped with both hands. In Europe, the MPV had a similar effect. And product planners, eager to wring every last cent or penny or pfennig from their major platform investments, pushed their marketing and vehicle branding teams to create ‘new’, clever ways of skinning the same basic platform. VW, famously, did this across four different brands that sold (and still sell) the same product.

None of this was or is actually that innovative.

Just two years before the iPhone, this prescient quote was included in an article published by the Open University:

The car industry today is an industry that is piggy-backing off the type of innovation that is occurring in an industry that is still in the early phase of its life cycle. In fact an industry that looks a lot like the car industry looked 100 years ago — the IT industry. And that’s why you see these car firms like Peugeot, Jaguar, Mazda filling up their cars with all these IT gadgets because that’s the only way that they can appear innovative. (Dr Marina Mazzucato, 2005)

The recipe that worked so well in 80s was broadly the same in the noughties. A number of seats in a vehicle designed to transport you, more or less safely, from point A to point B. This reached its (il)logical end point in the execrable Mercedes GLC — a Frankenstein SUV Coupe designed to squeeze every last cent out of the product development budget.

But today’s consumer is outrageously well-informed. And, given a basic level of inquisitiveness, they can leverage the power of the combined knowledge of millions just by typing a question into their phone’s browser.

So how does that consumer buy a car today?

The core product is basically the same.

Yes, it’s is safer. Perhaps not more economical but it’s more comfortable. It’s more powerful.

But it is also definitively more confusing. Its benefits are less clear cut. And the things that create additional value, that set a given car apart from its peers are increasingly created and owned by companies that are not carmakers.

When I look for GPS accuracy I think Garmin or TomTom. When I look for excellence in audio, I think Meridian or B&O. When I want a car to connect to my wider lifestyle, I look for CarPlay or Android Auto. When I want better brakes, I seek out Brembo or AP.

These elements are all ingredients. But more importantly, their technology branding is simple. It is clear. It is unadulterated.

Faced with the rise of ingredient brands as differentiators (and Tesla’s pesky electric autonomy), traditional carmakers have responded in time-honoured fashion.

They’ve doubled-down on extending their feature sets, creating a mind-boggling array of complex, impenetrable descriptors to attach to their confusing, multi-tiered, endlessly body-styled ranges.

But underneath, there’s very little innovation.

Whilst it seems like they’re being innovative by delivering all these new models and options for their consumers, the reality is they’re just playing catch up.

So now every carmaker needs a PHEV. They need some weird SUV/Coupe thing.

They need to be seen to invest heavily in long-range electric. They need an autonomy division. They’re copying, not leading.

As we buy fewer and fewer vehicles, and lease, or rent, or even hire more and more frequently, will anyone actually care that BMW has this many models?

  • BMW 1 series
  • BMW X1
  • BMW 2 series
  • BMW X2 (due in 2017)
  • BMW M2
  • BMW 3 series
  • BMW M3
  • BMW X3
  • BMW 4 series
  • BMW M4
  • BMW X4
  • BMW 5 series
  • BMW M5
  • BMW X5
  • BMW X5M
  • BMW 6 Series
  • BMW M6
  • BMW X6
  • BMW X6M
  • BMW 7 Series

And dear god, can anyone honestly tell me how you pick the right one of 436 model variants on the BMW configurator. Who has the time to get it right? Surely every BMW owner in the country suffers terribly with FOMO?

Audi are no better. They take the opposite approach — they assume such a low level of knowledge and care in the mind of the consumer that they offered exactly the same ‘suggested configuration’ of A4 saloon to a selection of my colleagues using their configurator. It suggests a level of personalisation that is in actual fact not supported. They ask no questions about what you’re looking for. They assume.

But Audi and BMW are not alone. I know from personal experience that this malaise is present in almost every single automotive brand to a greater or lesser extent. Complexity has become commonplace — and rather than fixing the root cause, technology branding is used to paper over the cracks.

Embracing Simplicity

In a world of shared data, massively heightened consumer expectations regarding what companies should be doing with that data and an expectation that the trade off for sharing your every online (and offline) move is a personalised service, both of these (and many other) manufacturers fall woefully short.

Where we seek simpler, clearer, more personal choices, we’re confronted with complexity, or false, shallow understanding.

Vorsprung durch technik it is not.

In a world where fewer young consumers in the West are buying cars, where megacities will suck in populations, where resources are scarce and in which cars drive themselves, who needs to waste time deciding between feature sets and taglines created in the 1980s?

As we move to shared access to self-driving vehicles, to ultra-flexible rental models and to an increasingly experience driven set of consumer expectations, is there the room for so many confusing and competing models?

Whisper it, but do we need so many car brands?

Faced with this stark challenge, embodied by Uber, by Tesla and others the traditional carmakers could do worse than look to simplicity.

It’s manifestly clear that their quest for differentiation and innovation has had the opposite effect. Their model ranges are weighty, difficult to navigate and rely on collective brand muscle memory to retain market share. Their product is a refined version of the same thing they sold in 1969.

Porsche are taking some sensible steps — but they have a small range, with clearly defined roles. Instead, Ford, BMW and others should perhaps look to brands like Help Remedies — brands who have remembered to focus on the simple consumer need at the heart of the purchase decision.

And they should embrace the data made available by the very same connected cars and sales funnels they manage to create a truly refined and personal brand experience. One that focuses on what we want from our future transportation experience. Not on how to squeeze the most profit from a given platform.

In my lifetime, the car market will change beyond all recognition.

But it won’t be electrification or autonomy that helps brands to thrive and survive — these features will be table stakes. Instead, it will be the brands that understand their customers needs and that create flexible, simple and straightforward mobility services that will win.

The problem is — it might be a brand that doesn’t make cars that recognises this first.

There has never been a better time for carmakers to embrace simplicity in their vehicle branding strategy. No one wants to be the next Nokia.


Geraint Jones is business development director at Siegel+Gale. Follow Geraint on Twitter: @gvlj