June 26, 2017

To developers of self-driving cars: Ever heard about Marketing Myopia?

Self-driving cars are hot and most technology companies and many Silicon Valley start-ups are leading the autonomous vehicle hype. Engineering firms are working on developing autonomous car technologies and new testing projects of prototypes are an almost daily phenomenon. Fearing to miss the market opportunity many traditional automakers are launching research projects and prototypes. The autonomous vehicle makes experts excited and local as well as national governments are eagerly providing all sorts of facilities and help to attract and test robot cars.

I will not talk about a number of serious ethical or legal issues that have still to be addressed if such a technology becomes mainstream. I will limit this advice to the marketing dimension only.  
The marketing practice is full of anecdotes of failed new products and new ventures; some of them were based on state-of-the-art technologies that created substantial publicity and interest; A rather recent and well known example are the multiple failures of dot.com ventures at the beginning of this century.
While the reasons for new product failures are many in many and diverse, the "Product Orientation" (also known as Marketing Myopia, a concept every marketing college student knows about) has been a main reason of new product failures and responsible for billions of dollars burned in the market test. Marketing myopia is particularly present in the technology sector where often new and very promising technologies lead to very interesting concepts that without much scrutiny were launched to markets that were neither ready nor interested. This because more often than not the developers of such ideas fail to ask the target consumer / customer if a need for such a product exists.

I am afraid the autonomous car is also such a case. Despite the going volume of press posts and all types of media / social media debates I did not see yet a serious industry study measuring such a market need for self-driving cars. Maybe such a study lays in the drawers of some of the businesses in question but if I look to the - seldom - scientific literature studies about the possible adoption of self-driving cars these are sketching a rather negative picture; legal liability, comfort and safety concerns seem to be important issues for future possible users. 

Next to customer perceptions or even attitudes that can be potentially be very hard to change I think the most important issue around this technology is a radical change it will bring to the concept of "driving"! We know very well that people buy a car for various reasons, a very important one is because they see it as an expression of freedom, fun and of course because they like driving. 
The self-driving car is not anymore a vehicle under the driver's control and comes close to a -small size -  city bus or train. A typical potential buyer will make, even unconsciously, this association when in the consideration / alternative comparison stage. And while a robot car can be exciting to a computer scientists like the ones sitting inside the test cars today it can be repulsive to the mainstream user. I am afraid that potential buyers of a self-driving car will see this as an alternative to public transportation, an expensive alternative indeed. 
I countries with highly developed public transportation the chances of mainstream drivers to choose for a robot car will be limited. In countries with bad public transport the chances are better, I would argue though that countries with bad public transport maybe could use the R&D costs for the self-driving car for improving their public transportation instead.

I am afraid that if the industry does not conduct a serious study on the customer's needs and usage perceptions, the self-driving car will follow the fate of the hyped introduction of the e-readers of some years ago that not only did not wipe out the printed book but did not even manage to become a mainstream product. 

I would not argue however that the self-driving vehicle is useless, there are several cases that I think it can be useful,  mainly in the b2b and public domain, but I am afraid that in this cases the typical car driver will not be the main target.
Before the self-driving car becomes another marketing failure anecdotes I would highly recommend to developers to ask some people with marketing knowledge to help them understanding their potential market better avoiding the product orientation trap