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Google must consider consumers to win driverless car race
POSTED | 9:20 AM | 24-09-2015

Google must consider consumers to win driverless car race

It may be the company that best understands its audience – not just the technology ¬ that takes the lead in the self-driving car markets, writes Laurence Green.

The burgeoning autonomous and connected car market is expected to deliver a £51bn boost to the UK economy by 2030. With this in mind, it is not hard to understand why technology companies such as Google and Apple have demonstrated serious intent in entering this lucrative market with their own brand of connected automobiles. 

The automotive market does not just offer a commercial incentive for technology companies, it also provides a challenge. “Never say never” is an adage that many who operate in the world of technology believe in. It speaks to ambition and open-mindedness, disruption and discontinuity.

So when Sony’s chief executive, Kazuo Hirai, was questioned last week about the possibility of joining Apple and Google in the rush towards the automotive sector, he may have felt obliged to tell the Financial Times that Sony “have no plans at the moment … but never say never.”

Shareholders and students of marketing might counsel Hirai otherwise. A “never” sometimes concentrates the mind, and Sony’s track record of innovation is famously double-edged: for every Walkman, there’s a Betamax.

Betamax technology, so swiftly and famously outmanoeuvred by JVC’s competing VHS format, may be an ancient business case study, but it remains an instructive one. Its lessons about consumer orientation echo down the years, reminding us that tomorrow’s brand leaders in automotive will be those that wear marketing and not just tech goggles as they develop products and plot launches.

The case for tech companies as disruptors is an easy one to make. We stand on the threshold of genuine technological breakthrough: Google admits that its self-driving car may have crashed “surprisingly often” over the past six years but stresses that this has always been due to human error – on the part of other road users – thus cementing rather than undermining the case for robotization. Incumbents are stuck with legacy products, systems and world views. The future will look unlike the past and belong to players with UX and mapping advantages and reputation, together with a fresh take on mobility, just as surely as it does to Uber and Airbnb in their respective categories.

The counter theories are various. Cars, and the market’s incumbent brands, are deeply enshrined in our culture. The tectonic plates will therefore only shift gradually, if at all. Car manufacturers have core capability in design and manufacturing, realize that performance and looks matter, and are close enough to the consumer to understand that cars are the new dining room table – a place where we live and meet, not just a means of getting from A to B.

They know that people feel safe in cars precisely because they are in control, and they like that feeling. The whole premise of the driverless car, in fact, may be based on an incorrect assumption. Perhaps people actually love driving and won’t give up the steering wheel as readily as the tech companies hope.

Smart commentators are betting on a compromise – a hybrid scenario in which tech brands play a role as component part, not master brand. Industrial designer Raymond Loewy’s time-honoured Maya principle provides succour for that middle path. Designers, Loewy believed, should reach for the “most advanced yet acceptable” product, on the basis that “the adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.”

It may, in the end, be even simpler than that. The race might just be won by the business that best understands its audience. “Automobiles are mechanical sports jackets,” the American adman Willy Hopkins surmised. “They tell people who you are, how you vote and whether you’re available to go home with me after the bar closes.” 

Remembering that cars, driverless or not, speak to these enduring human impulses might trump all bar the most vertiginous technological leap.

Laurence Green is founding partner at 101.

Photo caption: An early version of Google’s prototype of a self-driving car. Photograph: Google/EPA

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