If you wanted to understand vehicle trends and jumpstart the autonomous car, it is good practice to ask a woman. Although females are underrepresented in the auto industry— they hold only 27% of the jobs in motor vehicles and manufacturing and compose ~14% to ~30% of Uber/Lyft drivers, they have a remarkable ability to spot market niches and trends.
In a recent blog, we noted that older women will be the “first responders” for autonomous vehicles. There are numerous reasons: women are likely to be living alone in far-flung suburbs, but recognize, at an earlier age their limitations as safe drivers. Women are also more inclined than male drivers to ask directions (!), to use public transit, and be less wrapped up in an image-driven car culture.
The ability of women to nail transportation trends has a long, if somewhat muted, history.
The electric vehicle (EV) was, and perhaps remains the woman’s vehicle of choice. In 1898, the first woman to buy a car selected an EV and in 1908 Henry Ford bought one for his wife, Clara. Electric vehicles were favored by women. Although the EVs did not have the range of gas powered vehicles, they were quieter, did not smell of petro, and importantly, were easier to start since gas powered cars had to be cranked by hand. Since they EVs were used for local city travel, range-anxiety had yet to be invented. There might have been a niche market for the electric car, but the desire for acceleration and range took hold and left the electric car in the dust.
Speed up 100 years though, and we again have women pioneering electric vehicles. According to a recent Forbes Asia story, while Tesla and Apple are (re)working electric car technologies, a women entrepreneur from the Southern Indian city of Coimbatore is pioneering a different segment- electric cycles, scooters, and load carriers.
The entrepreneur, Hemalatha Annamalai, is focusing on the mobility needs in smaller towns. Her customers are farmers, shopkeepers and rural traders. These communities have been overlooked by the big automotive players, even Tata. She has also, per Forbes, developed a battery-powered vehicle for the disabled that travels 16 miles per hour, and has a 25 mile range.
While some might see India as a special case, a female entrepreneur here in the U.S., also succeeded when she identified a new automotive niche. Robin Chase, challenged the model of individual car ownership. Chase, the former CEO and founder of Zipcar, then started a peer-to-peer car service that was sold to Drivy. Chase has never valued speed, style, and beauty over the more basic intrinsic need to get from point A to point B.
Returning to the story of the electric car, UC Davis researchers noted in 2012 that women composed just 29% of Nissan Leaf owners, 24% for the Volt , and just 16% for the 16% of Tesla S. When the researchers studied the driving habits of electric vehicle adopters, they found that women had more anxiety about range. Perhaps their mindset went like this: “What if…the kids gets sick, what if… grandma needs a ride, or someone asks me for a lift…”.
The men (and women) designing cars might take note. On the one hand, they can either continue to market gas powered cars with better mileage, or… and this is the clinch…address range anxiety by engineering an easy way to swap out batteries, provide flash recharging stations, or keeping a small petro cache.
There are multiple ways to harness a new technology, and a trajectory of different paths that could be followed. The key is that if women ruled the automotive boardroom (today they are just 16%) and were more influential in engineering and planning, we would probably be on a faster path towards developing a quieter, electric, and fully autonomous car. Even so, we will probably get there, but it will be, ironically, a slower journey.