When and if driverless vehicles ever reach the market, women likely will support the technology as much as men.
So says Tim Bajarin, one of the high-tech industry’s leading strategists, in taking exception to results of a national survey by personal-finance website NerdWallet suggesting most female consumers would not be interested in driverless cars and, as a result, could prove an obstacle to market adoption.
The study was based on an online sampling of 1,028 randomly selected Americans ages 18 and older conducted May 12-13 through SurveyMonkey, a cloud-based survey company.
NerdWallet respondents were 52% female and 48% male, with 22% of survey participants under age 30 and 26% over 60. The margin of error was four percentage points.
Only 37% of the women surveyed by NerdWallet expressed any interest in owning a self-driving car, compared with about half of the men.
Approximately 53% of all respondents ages 18 to 29 said they were very interested or somewhat interested in owning a self-driving car, compared with 41% of those 30 and older.
About 55% of all women surveyed listed safety among the biggest drawbacks to the new technology, while 37% of men were worried about safety.
Additionally, 44% of men and 23% of women included in the NerdWallet survey said they suspected driverless cars will take the fun out of driving.
Bajarin, a columnist for PC magazine as well as Time and a consultant for many leading high-tech tech companies including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson and Toshiba, is widely recognized for anticipating the rise of multimedia back in the mid-1980s and predicting the desktop-publishing revolution three years before that technology hit the market.
During a phone interview with WardsAuto, Bajarin challenges the basic premise of the NerdWallet report, noting women have demonstrated over the years an equal openness to technology advances such as two of the industry’s most significant inventions, the videocassette recorder and iPhone.
Therefore, he says, it would be inconsistent with their history as consumers for women to dismiss driverless tech so far ahead of its presumed entry into the market, without any way to know what such autos could offer them.
“The thing that eventually makes technology successful is if it works, it’s easy to use and it adds something in great dimension to my life,” Bajarin says.
“If an autonomous car comes to market and it provides the kind of easy-to-use levels of trust that we can put into it and delivers a value proposition that, again, as an individual I can trust,” he continues, “then we’ll go through an adoption cycle,” which for similar advances typically lasts 10 to 20 years.
“In the end, I think the bigger issue, as an individual, is how much control I’m willing to give up to the machine and, more important,” Bajarin says, “will I always have control of it?”
If he’s “driving around town, following the same path to work,” he might not mind letting the car do all the driving, Bajarin speculates, but as a car aficionado, he’d probably want to feel and hear the roar of the engine and maintain driving control, particularly around turns.
Mazda Focuses on Feeling
Those latter sentiments evoke some of the reasons Mazda so far has chosen not to pursue self-driving vehicles, explains Jeremy Barnes, director-public relations and brand experience-Mazda North America Operations. The automaker is launching a new ad campaign that emphasizes the driving experience.
Driverless cars “are not something Mazda is particularly excited about,” Barnes says. “We don’t speak directly to men or women. We target a specific demographic, a specific mindset.”
Barnes describes his brand’s target demographic as younger “doers,” outdoor types who have active lifestyles.
Mazda’s emerging marketing message “is all about the feel of a Mazda, how does it feel to drive…(to have consumers say) ‘I like to drive this car,’” says Barnes, adding that switching the company’s focus to self-driving vehicles would diminish “something very important to us…
the Mazda-ness of a Mazda.”
Amanda Rice, a spokeswoman for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., assures the public that “when it comes to self-driving cars Toyota is taking everything into consideration, most importantly, safety. We will continue to research and monitor self-driving cars as we head into the future.”
However, she also confirms her company is not planning on developing driverless autos, either – which may be a little ironic, since the Toyota Prius has been one of the test models of choice for Google’s army of driverless-technology researchers.
Even Bradley Stertz, spokesman for Audi of America, whose company has embraced autonomous technology, tells WardsAuto driverless cars will reach the consumer only after a slow, methodical, step-by-step process where issues, particularly safety, have been resolved.
Autonomous vehicles in decades to come may be more like the driver-assisted cars the market already offers and less like the eye-catching fully autonomous Audi seen in the movie “I, Robot,” says Stertz.
But, he adds: “That’s still a long way off. It’s too speculative.”
Bajarin says he couldn’t agree more that there are too many unknowns and too much misinformation in the public to develop definite conclusions about the future of driverless cars.
He says he’s intrigued by the way NerdWallet approached the topic from a socially driven point of view, but notes, “if the auto industry does this right, autonomous cars are going to be safer than it is today with human drivers. I think the perception will be very different.”
And what does Bajarin see as the takeaway from the NerdWallet survey?
“Individuals who respond to surveys like that only respond to what they think they know, rather than what is true,” he says. “We’re at this stage of a new technology where we just don’t understand it, we don’t understand quite how they’re making it happen.”