Which brands will succeed in a driverless future?

In a world of Autonomous Vehicles, will it be legacy carmakers, tech brands or new players who lead the way? In an extract from ustwo Auto’s new book Humanising Autonomy: Where Are We Going? Principal of Design Tim Smith predicts what consumers will be looking for, and how brands will try to position themselves, in a driverless future

In the 1800s, Sunlight Soap completely changed how soap was sold. Instead of the conventional (at the time) piles of soapy shavings and clumps, the new Sunlight was formed into consistent weighted blocks. The first of it’s kind, it promised consistency, quality and fair value for money, the first product to fulfil that essential branding virtue; trust.

ustwo’s Autonomous Vehicle (AV) called Roo, named after our maternal animal friends that carry their passengers as they hop around town

But enough about soap, in the context of connected cities of our future, automobile branding will completely change how the product is sold, much like Sunlight Soap did – whilst retaining that trusted promise of quality and consistency. Can a brand that’s synonymous with the freedom of driving be as loved within an automated experience? As the driver becomes the passenger, existing car makers may need to shift from from being original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to original experience manufacturers. This won’t be easy, but to compete, it’ll be necessary to claim a more direct relationship with consumers.  

The winning brands will be those which combine the traditional brand properties, the physical design of the vehicle, with emotional intelligence and deep insight into how we behave. The increase in agency for the vehicle increases its responsibility to understand its passengers at a far deeper level. Decisions driving consumer choice within the Autonomous Vehicle (AV) market will be broader than ever, creating an even richer experience for the commuter and enthusiast alike. Consumers will assess not only power, safety and aesthetics, but also how well the vehicle understands its passengers and how it integrates with their lifestyles.

If ROO were a NYC taxi

And what about designing AV experiences for those who crave driving? AVs won’t be for everyone, and not all brands are ripe for autonomy. In the distant (distant) future, as AVs take over the streets, we must still make space for the original driving experience too – AVs will add to the choice, not dissipate it.

How will driverless car brands differentiate?

In the first instance, the majority of AV purchases are likely to come from fleet companies and delivery services, or through government public transport schemes. Our first encounters may be things like fast food delivery or airport shuttles. When designing for these early encounters, it’s important to create the right impression to build trust. If I trust my pizza to come on time without a driver, then why not my shopping? Maybe I’ll even take an AV to work.

The ROO interior

Similarly, the first time we might have choice as a consumer to pick one AV over another or another mode of transport will probably be part of a car-sharing or shuttle scheme. Here, the decision will be driven less by the exterior design and more by the service offering and experience of the journey itself.

How do brands who can’t position themselves on the ‘drive’ proposition differentiate themselves? Personalisation is part of the answer. This is something that startup Faraday Future promises in its FF91 model due for release in 2018. Their idea is that while different people might use the shared car, the machine will learn personal preferences tailoring itself to its passenger and their habits. Their experiences will be consistent yet different to others.

Image courtesy Faraday Future

Generation X consumers tend to consider their car a part of their identity. The brand, the model, the colour, the engine – all accessories carefully picked out to coordinate with their vehicular ‘outfit’, as part of their identity. Nowadays, this is becoming less and less prevalent, with Generation Z individuals opting for consumer electronics as their preferred form of self-expression. This generation also tends to be less brand loyal, but still values high quality experiences.

In many cases the physical ‘brand’ is becoming invisible – for most of us, the actual car you get when you order an Uber is incidental. It follows that AVs may be designed with a more practical focus, rather than the more ‘couture’ approach used with conventional cars.

The same vehicular ambiguity, coupled with service provider visibility, applies to almost all other forms of transport. Who did you fly with last? United Airlines. What plane was it? Um… Which train did you use last? Virgin Trains. What model of train was it? Erm… The car and motorbike are the last vestiges of vehicular brand awareness, perhaps because they are attainable.

It’s the brand as a service that you remember. The ease of booking, the price, the conversation you had with the driver on the way, the cleanliness of the vehicle, the choice of route they made, and the way they drove.

In the future, ideally the physical product and the service will be designed in sync to create a harmony between form and behaviour. Even if car makers continue to sell to service providers, they’d do well to collaborate rather than retrofitting the product into the service, in a way that differentiates themselves from the rest.

For ustwo’s Humanising Autonomy book, 20 artists and designers reimagined the look and experience of Autonomous Vehicles, moving away from clinical technical drawings often associated with the field. Above is Aart Jan Venema’s illustrated interpretation of a future with AVs

Not all brands are on-brand

Don Norman famously wrote in his book Design for Future Things“Driving an automated car is very much like riding a horse.”

The horse has its own mind and operates within the interests of its own safety (though, unlike Asimov’s robot, it probably doesn’t care about its rider), and it’ll get you to where you want it to with some level of autonomy. Applying our brand qualities from above, you’d want the riding experience of this horse to be safe, convenient, and comfortable.

Whilst writing our book on humanising autonomy, we spoke to many of the major OEMs to understand their opinions on AVs and their plans for their customers. What we discovered was that not all of them even want to offer such a service, while other brands simply won’t be able to offer fully-autonomous vehicles, because their brand values are not conducive to an autonomous experience, like those of Norman’s horse. Take Lamborgini, their brand values really do not mirror those associated with autonomous driving, “Aggressive, Challenging, Extreme.”

If we look at Norman’s analogy, would you ride a horse that was described as aggressive, challenging, and extreme? It sounds awful – like riding a raging bull (which incidentally is Lambo’s mascot). For Lamborghini, this technology may be beyond its current commercial offering capabilities, and this may not be of any great concern – after all, we’re talking about an enthusiast’s car, one which attracts the wealthy and the fashion-conscious. In fact, when we heard Nicola Porciani, head of connected car at Lamborghini, at the London TexhXLR8 conference in 2017 he compared the brand to Gucci, rather than Google. He knows Lamborghini customers buy their vehicles for performance, as well as a lifestyle accessory, not function alone.

With the advent of AVs, Lamborghini’s strategy might be to play up its unique manually-driven car brand features, perhaps even portraying driving as a nostalgic pastime or an extreme sport. Nicola himself told us that over-the-air (OTA) updates or downloadable content (DLC) is where they see their connected car experience going in the future, with customers able to download “track day packs” that prime the car ready for the race track, or “power-ups” as Porciani called them.

Manually-driven cars may even end up being banned from many roads, just like Oslo banned private cars from its city centre in 2015 (which was later converted to a city-wide parking-ban).

Claudio, The Super Car by Muxxi. Year: 2099

Other brands that are less interested in offering fully-autonomous vehicles, at least for now, include Porsche and Mazda, who both say that they will be continuing to focus on the driver (in the traditional sense), and not the passenger of the future.

Porsche is focusing on what it calls “sport mobility”, hinting at the kinds of technologies used in AVs, but not yet committing to developing an AV per se; “The sportscar of the future will blend the history and values of the Porsche brand with innovative technologies, while at the same time ensuring sustainability. In achieving this, topics such as electromobility, digitalisation and connectivity will play an important role. Embracing these topics will allow us to shape the exclusive and sporty mobility of tomorrow.”

While Mazda is clear in its intent and wants to “celebrate driving”; “Mazda’s Brand Essence is ‘Celebrate Driving’. ‘Celebrate Driving’ delivered by Mazda is not just about driving performance. Choosing a Mazda prizes the owner with confidence and pride. Driving a Mazda leading up to urge to take on new challenges. Not just our products but every encounter with Mazda evokes the emotion of motion and makes customers’ hearts beat with excitement. All of these are contained in our brand essence of ‘Celebrate Driving’.” 

Count it: the word “driving” is used five times. If brands like these are declaring themselves out of the race, then who is still in the running?


Illustrator Hannah Nicdao’s vision for AVs

Which brands will win?

We spoke with a member of the design team at Bentley’s Crewe HQ who shared a very interesting parallel between the Bentley brand and AVs.

He said that Bentley is the first autonomous car brand. Bentleys are meant to be driven, but not by the owner – many of them have a chauffeur. That’s why there is so much attention to comfort. It wouldn’t be a huge leap to suggest that Bentley might have an easy ride into the AV space, offering a high-end car-sharing experience. But it will be a careful balance to ensure a sense of exclusivity is maintained.

In fact, Bentley’s CEO, Wolfgang Dürheimer, has already stated claim to their plans at the 2016 Automotive News World Congress in Detroit. “I believe there is a big future for more diverse and sophisticated concierge-style services that will enhance the lives of our customers,” he said. “We are also investigating a global Bentley customer network – a ‘club’ where ownership does not relate to a single vehicle, but rather it entitles you to a luxury mobility solution in selected cities around the world.”

Here Dürheimer reaffirms our opinion that some brands live more in the experience rather than in the ownership of the vehicle itself. And in Bentley’s case, physical styling will be an important brand element in its AV vision, both inside and out. Bentley’s brand values include “uncompromising luxury” and “outstanding performance” – values a user would want to associate with their AV experience.

Another brand value users want from AV technology is safety. Volvo has recently announced that it wants its vehicles to be “death-proof” by 2020. It’ll do this by improving accident avoidance technology, eventually culminating in driverless vehicles. When it comes to brand values for vehicles, safety has to be one of the most compelling, and it’s one that Volvo has written into its brand values since its very beginnings in 1927. Claiming your vehicles to be death proof is an incredibly strong brand proposition – one that is ethically commendable while being very persuasive to boot. Volvo’s XC90 has not had a single fatal accident in the past seven years. The brand is very much associated with these impressive safety credentials and is therefore, vitally, trusted. This may serve Volvo well as it enters the race to dominate the AV market.

“With the development of full autonomy, we are going to push the limits of automotive safety,” said Volvo safety engineer Erik Coelingh, speaking to CNN

Despite the rays of light described above, the auto industry in general has a bad reputation. If the auto industry as a whole was a single brand, its brand values might be: dangerous, dirty, expensive, corrupt, and clunky. These are not conducive to the adoption of driverless cars.

Of course, almost all of today’s car brands were crafted around a now-antiquated piece of technology. Their messaging was designed to persuade exchanges of hard cash for cold steel. Their stories begin with the internal combustion engine and end with the emissions baggage that brings. Think of any car brand and safe, clean, cheap, open and innovative aren’t the words that first come to mind. Except maybe for one…

New kids on the block

In Tesla’s original Master Plan, Elon Musk put forward a ten-year roadmap for how Tesla’s products would be launched and what each product would offer. In short, the Master Plan states four key products and their order of launch:

  • Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive
  • Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price
  • Use that money to create an affordable, high-volume car
  • Provide solar power

Musk here is using a fresh new brand, with a clean slate, putting forward a step-by-step product plan. By building from the ground up, Tesla is able to create a product without legacy – a product bespoke for its intent. Conventional OEMs, on the other hand, have to retrofit their brands to suit new consumer attitudes.

The first Tesla model, the Roadster, was designed specifically with sustainable energy in mind. Musk goes into huge mathematical detail as to how the running and even production of the vehicle is not only sustainable, but can actually create more energy than it uses. And with that, Musk is building a brand whose values are tailored specifically for the current climate and consumer attitudes. Unlike older car brands, Tesla does not have any of those old auto industry brand values we listed earlier. Without that baggage, Tesla are free to position itself exactly as it likes.

Tesla isn’t the only new kid on the block. Faraday Future debuted its high-performance electric car, the FF 91, at CES in 2017, while Nio (formerly NextEV), a startup based in China, develops high-performance electric and autonomous vehicles, including “the world’s fastest” electric car, the EP9, which holds the lap record at the Nürburgring of 06:45:900.

Image courtesy Nio

We were fortunate enough to meet with some of the designers, including the branding team, who conceived Nio’s new Eve vision concept, first demonstrated at SXSW in Texas in 2017. The outward expression of the Nio Eve brand appears to be more about experience than “product”. According to Nio’s website, it stands for “How people use these products and their entire ownership experience. We want you to feel positive again about owning a car… We want to redefine what premium service means for a car company.”

From the Nio Eve website

The new players stand for something different. Tesla’s Elon Musk purposefully distances himself from the industry. His relentless and public pursuit of innovation is building his brand, which is reinforced by Musk’s halo as a space pioneer. It is a brand with a clear purpose.

Much like these new kids on the block – could non-automotive brands enjoy an easier ride into the AV space, without the chains of the auto industry to weigh them down?

Hear the word ‘Google’ and you immediately think technology, search, maps… just downright clever. You don’t think: automotive industry, dangerous, dirty, expensive, or clunky. But Google is making a car and it may even be one of the best-known, most respected AV producers right now. Google does carry some baggage of its own, however – that 21st century baggage of data privacy and security.

People are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of data sharing and the internet, and Google is at the very heart of that concern. Perhaps this is why Google has repackaged its AV project under a new brand, Waymo. Much like Tesla, Waymo will be distancing itself from the industry in which it belongs, in an attempt to leave behind the negative connotations.


Image courtesy Google


Closing thoughts

Whether as a producer of the AVs themselves, or as the service provider, brands will need to be trusted, with the brand perception matching what the user expects from the technology and service. Without this, AV technology will have a hard time finding public trust.

In the future, they say it’ll be easier to get around and cheaper too. Everything will be connected and the city will be a place of parks and peace – all choreographed by a hyper-intelligent mobility network. Catch a driverless car, hop on a drone, travel at the speed of sound underground and touch in and out with a blink of an eye. It’s a seductive vision. True or not, what’s important for brands is to really understand what matters to people and to break down their silos in pursuit of a common purpose – to create a remarkable experience end-to-end. Brands will have a business advantage by being human, it may even act as that vital differentiator.

The best cars are the ones we connect with. Whether they are old bangers that you love or some sort of car that really excites you to drive. At the end of the day, a successful AV user experience will be the one that we trust and connect with emotionally, not just functionally.

The above is an extract from ustwo’s new book Humanising Autonomy: Where are we going? which explores further what unique branding opportunities there are for AVs and the importance of putting their customers needs at the heart of their brand. The book can be downloaded for free here