LeBron James Pitches For Driverless Cars, Intel Takes Risks With Media Campaign

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LeBron James has added a new corporation to his already robust endorsement portfolio of Nike, Coca-Cola, Beats by Dre, Verizon, and Kia Motors.

Welcome to the Lebron James empire, Intel. The company known for its processors has branched out into the Internet of Things (IoT), Associative Memory AI, climate research with Arctic conservationists, commercial drones, and self-driving car technology. And the latter is where LeBron James comes in.

His important assignment is to build trust in autonomous vehicles.

LeBron James

The Cleveland Cavaliers front man will be featured in a series of broadcast and digital ads aimed at overcoming consumer apprehension about driverless cars. As part of the advertising package, LeBron James will star in a commercial that showcases Intel’s self-driving car technology. The advertisements will precede the NBA season opener between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics on October 17th.

Intel is airing the commercial even before the driverless technology is commercially available. The campaign centers around the overarching slogan, “Intel is helping power autonomous vehicles you can trust, so we can all be fearless like LeBron James.”

A Problem with Perception: Autonomous Vehicle Technology

Back in March 2017, a report from AAA revealed that the majority of US drivers will be looking for autonomous technologies in their next vehicle, but they continue to fear the fully self-driving car. A survey conducted by global consulting firm AlixPartners  — which uses the acronym C.A.S.E. to describe the auto of the future as Connected, Autonomous, Shared, and Electrified — has shed some light on the possible key to reducing consumer apprehension around self-driving vehicles and making them into converts.

“When people get experience with these technologies, they really do get more confident,” says Mark Wakefield, a managing director at the firm. “It must be something about how the brain works. Once the car makes a few turns on its own, people become very comfortable with it. Maybe too comfortable.”

Here are their findings at a glance.

  • About 29% of consumers say they’re likely to buy an AV — and they’re willing to pay an incremental $2,629 for AV capabilities. Half of early adopters are willing to pay more than $3500.
  • About 29% of consumers stands at 97%, up from 90% in 2016.
  • 78% trust tech over auto companies to develop AV software, suggesting that the auto industry is starting in a hole.
  • Auto companies and suppliers face a big, two-front battle: educating consumers and competing on software, where tech companies already have consumers’ trust.

Intel is collaborating with leaders in automotive design and technology to turn what may seem to some like futuristic concepts for autonomous driving into reality. Intel says it is architecting transportation for a better life and a safer world. And, yet, they’ve called upon one of the oldest advertising techniques there is — celebrity promotion — to get the message of the future out to today’s audience.

LeBron James’ “Fearless” Ad

The commercial begins with LeBron James strutting with straight posture down a hallway as background bass drum and cymbal match his pace. He looks ahead. A narrator says, “Some people are fearless. No pressure too great.” The scene changes to James in Cleveland Cavaliers uniform and then on a stage, arms outstretched, an adoring public surrounding and cheering him on as a teammate hoists the NBA championship trophy.

The narrator continues, “No stage too big. Not afraid of anything.”

The scene shifts to James leaving the original high-walled cement building. An administrative assistant utters, “Hey, brother. Your car’s here.” Up to the curb comes a white sedan, and LeBron James leans over and peeks inside the car from the passenger’s side.

“Nope,” he utters, shaking his head, standing erect, and looking in relative amazement at his assistant.

“It’s safe. It sees, like, 80% better than you do,” the assistant counters.

“But I see there’s no driver,” the formidable basketball star refutes.

“Get in,” the assistant suggests, and LeBron James does so, climbing into the back seat as the assistant watches from the sidewalk. The music picks up in pace and energy.

The narrator returns. “Intel is helping to power autonomous cars you can trust. So we can all be fearless.”

“Hey, you all,” LeBron James says to his assistant, taking a selfie and giving a Thumbs Up sign as the car circles back. “I’m keeping this. I’m keeping it,” he laughs.

The screen fills with the deep blue Intel logo accompanied by the phrase, “experience what’s inside.”

Automakers’ Reluctance to Market Self-Driving Cars

Intel’s interest in promoting autonomous vehicles isn’t really about selling a product, but rather, promoting a technology. Last March, Intel announced it would be acquiring Israel-based self-driving company Mobileye for $15.3 billion. That triggered Intel to move quickly into the emerging self-driving market. The predicted $7 trillion potential has many tech conglomerates investing in a driverless future.

Intel’s plans to build a fleet of Level 4 fully self-driving vehicles for testing in the US, Israel, and Europe will begin this year and quickly expand to more than 100 automobiles.

That’s because Intel believes that the technology for self-driving cars is accelerating quickly. According to Jack Weast, Sr. Principal Engineer and Chief Systems Architect of Autonomous Driving Solutions at Intel Corp., we may be able to save millions of lives and grant mobility to all just by removing humans from the driver’s seat. But Weast also acknowledges that a driverless future is a no-go if the public does not have faith in its capacity for safe transportation.

Although automakers are quickly developing driver assist features, their past marketing attempts featuring self-driving cars haven’t really worked out as planned. The Mercedes-Benz ad for its 2017 E-Class, for example, caused controversy when consumers couldn’t figure out if the car actually was self-driving capable or just had automated-driving features. Tesla, that god of all transportation things electric and tech, removed the term “self-driving” from its website after the safety of its Autopilot system came into question following a fatal crash in China in which the automated driver assist was in operation.

The Trust Interaction Study for Autonomous Car Passengers

Intel conduced research to determine how consumers feel about driverless cars. The results? Seven areas of tension emerged that Intel and other technology companies will need to overcome if they are going to see returns on investment in driverless technology.

Human vs. machine judgment: What happens when a human is absent and an emergency driving situation occurs? Would a driverless car be able to handle such a nuanced situation? Participants in the survey did state that they believe self-driving vehicles will be safer because they eliminate human error. They’ll be more decisive, unlike humans who take too much time second-guessing.

Personalized space vs. lack of assistance: Topics that emerged in the survey included how a passenger would use the extra time being whisked to a destination rather than being behind the wheel; the lack of interaction with a human driver; the safety involved when transporting unaccompanied minors: and the lack of accountability when there is no driver.

Awareness vs. too much information: While participants acknowledged that there would be a learning curve to gain comfort with the autonomous driving system, they also felt built-in alerts and communications might become bothersome and intrusive, as they didn’t want to be distracted by too much information.

Giving up control of the vehicle vs. gaining new control of the vehicle: Uneasiness emerged for some survey participants when they thought of themselves riding in the back seat and removed from vehicle controls. So, too, did the autonomous movement of the steering wheel, which caused some participants to get the heebie-jeebies. But participants really liked new control experiences: the ability to summon a vehicle and unlock/open it using a mobile device, reduced stress from not having to drive, and perceived safety from having more “eyes” on the road.

Tell me vs. listen to me: Participants liked that the driverless car included a human “voice,” but many wondered if they could use their own voice to communicate with the car so they could exchange information. Examples of when this would be handy included if a detour was necessary, or if a change in destination occurred, or if changing weather conditions needed to be addressed.

Rule-following machines vs. human interpretation of the rules: Safety was the #1 factor for trust among participants, but not everybody defined safety in a driverless vehicle in the same way. Some participants acknowledged that their behavior as a driver was not always safe or legal, and many admitted speeding on empty roads, eating while driving, or not stopping when required.

How it works vs. proof it works: Participants felt strongly that they needed to understand both how the technology functions and its full capabilities. However, once they had the chance to experience the vehicle as it sensed and responded to what was happening around them, participants came away with much greater confidence. In essence, they saw that the driverless system did work — just like LeBron James did in the commercial.

Final Thoughts

Intel will continue to explore trust as a core element of vehicle system architecture and design. It plans to continue to look to user experience research in these areas as a way to help the industry deliver a trustworthy driverless car experience.  And calling upon LeBron James as a celebrity spokesperson is just the start.

Photo credit: Keith Allison via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

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