How flexibility and comfort might influence the autonomous car’s adoption

The consumer interest in flexibility and comfort [1], as well as changes along the “flexibility/comfort spectrum” in mobility, is an area that will influence the autonomous car’s adoption. Concretely, this discussion encompasses the following categories:

  1. Changing consumer habits and user practices
  2. Autonomous cars as traffic optimizers
  3. Autonomous cars as enablers of integrative transport use (inclusion of new transport users)

Changing consumer habits and user practices

Here we have three ongoing processes that might contribute to the autonomous car’s diffusion:

  1. Consumer’s changing buying and owning habits
  2. Consumer’s changing using habits
  3. Consumer’s changing preferences and expectations towards cars

Consumer buying and owning preferences — autonomous cars as enablers of cheaper delivery, decentralized car selling, and car usage without ownership

In the long-run people’s increasing use of online shopping (with home delivery) will play into the driverless car’s diffusion. Driverless vehicles will make package delivery cheaper by eliminating drivers and enable decentralized car selling. In this decentralized car selling, the cars consumers want to purchase will come to them instead of them, the consumers, visiting dealerships.

Furthermore, consumer’s car ownership preferences will be another enabler for the autonomous car. As the rise of ride- and carsharing shows, people are interested in getting directly to any place at any time without owning a car [2]. Driverless taxis would play perfectly into that interest. The car’s underutilization (cars are vacant for some 95% of the time) is just another innovation driver.

Consumer’s changing using habits — autonomous cars as enablers of personalized, on-demand, door-to-door transportation without the need to drive

Probably the biggest consumer change in regards to cars is how they are being used. One aspect, namely, having to drive a car, is depicted very well by the following quote about Gen Y:

“Regulation keeps trying to say texting is distracting to driving but for the consumer it is really the driving that is distracting to texting” — Third Annual Deloitte Automotive Generation Y Survey

Interestingly, however, it seems that consumers have a hate-love relationship with cars; they love the car’s convenience (getting directly to any place at any time, with full control over the environment through in-car technology) but hate its disadvantages (environmental pollution, traffic jams, not being able to engage in other activities like the above-mentioned texting…). This hate-love relationship is also visible in public transportation’s underutilization. Public transportation is, at least in Germany, hardly used. Concretely, more than 30% of the population uses public transportation never or only once a month.

The autonomous car as an enabler for “personalized, on-demand, door-to-door, automated transportation system” covering the car’s convenience but removing its disadvantages would be a great solution to people’s hate-love relationship with cars.

Note, however, that autonomous cars are competing here with other solutions such as ride sharing. Furthermore, a future with fully autonomous vehicles and no manual driving option might never be possible because it is incompatible with consumers preferences (for example, the preference for driving).

Consumer’s changing preferences and expectations towards cars — consumers want the more, better and newer in-car technology

There is a paradigm shift underway in consumer’s preferences and expectations towards cars.

On the one side, expectations towards cars have changed insofar as consumers now demand better and more consumer technology inside the car. Deloitte, for example, points out that “cockpit” technology was one of the two most important differentiators of cars for Gen Y in 2011. Furthermore, physical and psychological in-car relaxation is gaining in importance and will continue to do so as traffic jams, which are causing need for relaxation, are expected to keep rising. The Mercedes Vitality Coach, as well as the myriad of available in-car technology, are beginning satisfiers to these consumer needs.

Similarly, people are expecting the same technological quality (as opposed to engineering quality) from cars as they are used to from consumer technology. For example, people are not used to the sometimes really terrible in-car controls. The visions of what the autonomous car’s in-car experience will enable [3] would build perfectly upon these technologies.

However, “much technology” will not be enough in the future. Consumers are increasingly also demanding the newest technology in their cars. The cars’ current replacement cycles are not compatible with consumers’ demands here. Autonomous cars, which will be connected cars as well and thus able to receive new functionality through software updates, fit nicely into this new future [4]. Another way to achieve shorter release cycles is modularity. Chrysler, for example, imagines the car of the future to grow with its owner by having “Plug&Play” functionality for consumer electronics and seats (If you understand German, I have analyzed Chrysler’s concept in more detail here).

This being said, it must, however, be noted that through incremental innovations today’s cars would also be able to meet these changing preferences and expectations (see also sailing ship effect).

Autonomous cars as traffic optimizers

Besides a generally more pleasurable driving experience, (as explained above under “Consumer’s changing using habits”) autonomous car have specifically by associated with more pleasurable driving in heavy but slow traffic. Traffic jams are expected to rise, and people are obviously not the biggest fans of being stuck in traffic. The autonomous car could be of great help here. However, if with autonomous cars we are not getting rid of traffic, but “just” making it more pleasurable by not having to drive, we should question this aspect as an advantage of the autonomous car and whether other solutions such as Elon Musk’s electric skate (underground tunnels where cars are being transported automatically) could be of greater relevance.

Finally, the autonomous car as a “traffic optimizer”, could receive significant governmental support if traffic becomes a problem to the public as a whole (e. g. due to air pollution).

Autonomous cars as enablers of integrative transport use (inclusion of new transport users)

Integrative transport use refers to the inclusion of immobilized transport users (such as blind people or children) in the transportation system. Theoretically, driverless vehicles could enable personalized on-demand automated transportation to these people and thus enable something that previously was only possible with human assistance (e. g. taxis). Here we are very clearly talking about a very distant future because several other changes are necessary before blind people can be included into traffic without any human existence.

Notes

[1] About 30% of the comments analyzed in a survey in Societal and Individual Acceptance of Autonomous Driving dealt with these topics.

[2] I have explained here how in this context, ride- and carsharing can be seen as an autonomous car enabler by familiarizing people with the ideas of not owning a car and the advantages of not having to drive. Moreover, I have also outlined how ride- and carsharing can be interpreted as competing technologies to autonomous cars.

[3] I have shown here what car manufacturers believe the car of the future to be; Daimler frames it car as a mobile office, Toyota focuses on a “KITT” (from Knight Rider) like car where the car and driver are “teammates”, and for Chrysler the car of the future is a modular car with focus on virtual and real-life human interaction.

[4] I have explained here how in this context, ride/carsharing and consumer technology can be seen as an autonomous car enabler by exposing consumers to new technology faster and more frequent (through ride/carsharing) and by showing what they can expect from technology.


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