Getting Autonomous Cars to market may require some non-conventional reviewers. Today’s car reviews and videos are peppered with a Motown/macho sensibility. Flashy stories and pictures shout performance and peak power… and drill down on automotive features that can be measured like torque, acceleration, or braking time.
Car reviews are fun to read, but they support the normative. When a new technology is being introduced that challenges the mainstream, the established regime will set up roadblocks. Think of the headlines you read today about the autonomous car, “Who will be liable in the case of the inevitable accident?… Should the car be programmed to save its ‘driver’, or an assembly of pedestrians?… Can the autonomous car pull a boat out of the water and tow it?”
There are many questions about the autonomous car…they all should all rise to the top, but so should the interests of people who want and need to use these vehicles. Here is the disconnect: The people who are likely to be the first users, and those who will immediately benefit are not the same demographic as the writers, or the readers, of car reviews.
THE NEW AUDIENCES FOR AUTONOMOUS CARS
The autonomous car will be favored by people with visibility issues; that was a remark made by Google’s Chris Urmson at a recent Volpe labs talk. Seniors are likely to be in this group of supporters, since 21 percent over age 65 do not drive. Unfortunately, the visually impaired and those over 65 do not play a large role in the car industry and its reviews. There are an estimated 7,237,000 Americans that have a visual disability; About half are seniors over age 65. (National Institute for the Blind, 2013).
A second group that will benefit from autonomous cars are the people stuck in traffic- Most likely they are commuters, spending an average of 50 minutes per work-day in their car. They have limited flexibility to travel at off-peak hours when the roads are clearer. Although many of these commuters are the fans of automotive reviews, they are aware of other issues. They might be worried about the gas fumes, their health, and spending so much time in the car. And, if they could predict traffic and get home in time to see their kid’s softball game, that might be a game-changer.
Today, 76 percent of commuter’s drive-alone, about 106.7 million solo-vehicles. The numbers who are frustrated with their car commute is less…but, say a guesstimate of one-third, there is still significant support for autonomous vehicles.
THE URBAN, AND OTHERS
A third group of potential users are urban residents. Urban residents are seldom found strapholding and reading a car magazine. Most likely, they do not own a car, and if they do- wish they did not. It would simplify their daily routines and bring relief if there was an alternative way to get around without recalculating stops, distance, and time of day. The US Census (2010) cites 132 areas, plus the Manhattan boroughs, that have a population density of more than 10,000 people per square mile. These cities range from Honolulu on the West to Sweetwater/Miami in the East.
There are many other collectives that are needy and will clamor to use autonomous cars- think adults who have received a DUI and cannot get to work easily; people who have been dropped by insurance companies or cannot afford to keep their automobile insurance; teens without licenses…..Each collective represents a substantial number of fans for the autonomous car.
OLD WORDS, NEW MACHINE
In fairness, we note that many car reviewers do seem to “get” the autonomous car and they marvel at the engineering feats. But they write that the rollout will take a decade or longer, and then some. More problematically, some of these writers often frame it as a collision of values: the self-driving car is in conflict with American independence, free choice, our national freedom to roam. They see this conflict, despite the fact that we all take trips on driverless trains in airports (Atlanta), have a few driverless buses on the road (Gizmodo), and sanction drone planes (without passengers).
There are large, user-ready, self-made markets for the autonomous vehicle. They just happen to be quieter ones- and they don’t write or read car reviews.
(Editorial note: Not to single out the over-worked, underpaid auto reviewers and video makers – a forthcoming blog will consider the role of advertising. Automotive spending exceeds $35.5 billion for just TV and digital media).