Automotive@eDay 2013 event : The challenge in robotic cars is the human factor

Eday overviewThis week the Emerce E-Week event and festival in Amsterdam took place. It is a series of events, which lures in over 2000 marketers, e-commerce specialists and media connoisseurs to the capital of the Netherlands. Pinnacle of the week is the eDay event, where approximately 70 internationally renowned marketing  lecturers, creative free thinkers and cutting edge speakers give it their utmost to inspire the audience with the newest ideas and best insights for the future. The eDay event was organized for the ninth time and this year’s theme was, What’s next in media, marketing and e-business.

Although this event is oriented purely around digital marketing, automotive was a reoccurring item in several speeches in this years’ edition. The closing speaker of the event was Michael Shanks of Stanford University. Shanks is the Omar and Althea Dwyer Hoskins Professor of Classical Archaeology and director of the Revs Program within CARS (the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford). In his speech he connected the history of automotive experience with the future of car design. In a vibrant speech he goaded the audience along his line of thinking and made them believe that the prototype of a new compact electric car by iconic ex-F1 designer and legend Gordon Murray is the future of the automobile.

Gordon Murray's t27

Cars will transform from transportation tools to mobile media devices. Autonomous intelligent vehicles will become a common part of daily experience over the next decade. In one big rush he tried to carry the Dutch audience into the future and what it all means for mobility, connection, association, reach, autonomy, sharing and belonging.

The workshop of professor Riender Happee of the Technical University Delft was more of the practical sort. He specializes in biomechanics or ‘haptic feedback’. How do people react in a car? How do they look, what do they feel?  His lecture is for an invite only audience with executives from car brands and a small number of participants out of the publishing, car trading, car sharing platforms and digital marketing industry. Amongst the brands involved were Fiat, BMW, Hyundai, Renault, Volkswagen, Renault, Subaru, Peugeot and Volkswagen. The discussion was about the marketing efforts autonomous or self-driving cars will require once they become reality. Happee distinguishes three phases in the development. 1) Technology that supports the driver. At the moment such technology is already available in many market offerings. Lane departure warning systems and auto parking pilot are just two examples. This technology will drill down from premium cars to the basic models in rapid pace in the coming years.

2) The second tier in technology, according to Happee, are systems that will execute the complete operation of a vehicle, but still require the passenger of the car to stay alert or monitor the vehicle. Cars with this level of being autonomous will typically still have a steering wheel.  This stage of the technology can be compared to auto pilot mode of modern commercial jet airliners.

3) The third tier of technology is when the car does all driving 100% autonomously. There is no other action required by the passenges than entering the desired destination.

Happee categorizes the highly applauded Google car as a tier 2 vehicle in the above categorization. He also applies this level to experimental cars of for instance Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan.  The systems involved might seem to make these cars a 100% autonomous. However the passengers in these cars, or better test vehicles on public roads, are in general engineers monitoring the technology and being able to interfere with the computer driving. This is different than when an ordinary consumer would seat oneself in such a vehicle.

With eye-tracking for example, Happee measured how people divide their visual attention. In one of his research studies Happee found evidence that consumers will experience the breaking by an autonomous car as much more radical and drastic then when they operate a car in the same style and under the same conditions by themselves.

Experimental self-driving vehicles, are already out there on public roads and have driven millions of miles. Manufacturers are even at a stage that the cost price of the sensors, the CPU unit and the cost of production is at a level that would make offering it in a premium vehicle already within in current reach.

The issue at stake is one of the human standards. Car manufacturers need to adapt the automation to consumer needs and capabilities, prove safety on public roads and create awareness, trust and acceptance. How much time do they need to make car buyers that so enthusiastic, that they will be  daring enough to let go of the steering wheel?

That one day we will all be travelling in autonomous cars seems to be a certainty. However to claim the first mover advantage and be the car brand that in retrospect will be the one that brought us 100% autonomous driving, will prove to be a hard and tactically utterly complex fight between the chief marketing officers of the various car brands.


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