2 Key Ways Robotaxis Can Entice Humans (& Get Them To Ditch Their Cars)

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There’s a common claim that autonomous vehicles will definitely take over the market and we humans will essentially stop driving ourselves places (except to the extent that some of us still keep horses to ride on). There’s an often combined claim that people will give up auto ownership and use robotaxis instead.

Then there’s the perhaps equally common response: “nuh-uh.” Or: “I don’t see it happening. People like driving, like being in control, and treat having a car as a status issue.”

I haven’t staked a strong claim on either answer yet, but I do slightly assume we will switch to almost entirely autonomous vehicles. However, that assumption is based in part on the logic that they’d be better, safer (especially en masse), cheaper, and more convenient. The problem I have with that assumption is that my experience is people are illogical and don’t always choose better, safer (especially en masse), cheaper, and more convenient. They can, but they can just as well ignore those benefits for various status or sense of comfort reasons.

I used to be director of an organization that advocated bicycling for transport in various ways. Bicycling offers many of those same benefits, plus it’s healthier, more fun, and provides environmental benefit. I learned time and time again, unfortunately, that other priorities overrode those benefits and put people in a car, behind the wheel, and on their way along a common, boring route (often as the only person in the car). The driving didn’t make them feel better, didn’t help their health (quite the opposite), didn’t save them money (actually cost a fortune), lowered their productivity, and put them at great risk. Nonetheless, this is the norm.

Another article I recently read pointed out how tied up our driving style is with our identity. That connects to the various values and expectations we impose on driving: “safety, trip progress, rule compliance (traffic laws, social norms), smooth operation and performance, and pleasure of driving.” Some of us prioritize some of those items more than the others, and other people have very different value sets. In any case, assuming we will all want to switch to autonomous vehicles because of a few values regarding safety, convenience, appreciation of new tech, and financial efficiency is a bit naive, imho. Those aren’t the only values that lead to so many people driving, and they are sometimes already counter to driving.

But, in combination with the above, I think there are two key ways that autonomous vehicles might entice the masses to drop driving.

The big one relates to status. It’s not actually that long ago that rich people were “driven” places. In the days of horses, they were pulled along in carriages. At the highest levels of society, rich people are still largely driven places instead of doing the driving. In certain countries, this is more standard and expected than others, but the story is similar around the world — if you are really important and rich, you have a driver.

People like to climb the socioeconomic ladder. If they are marketed robotaxis in this way — perhaps we should call them “invisible chauffeurs” or something — people will feel special, richer, prouder. Instead of using the “hey, it’s cheap” marketing approach, I think what would be especially powerful is marketing it as the next item of prestige available to you.

Another thing that I think is critical yet don’t see a lot about concerns choice, or variety. Consumers like to have choice and like to follow the style and sub-cultural symbols they identify with. Why do we have hundreds of different car models and trims? On the flip side, why do so many comments on robotaxis seem to imply a handful of options? Yes, taxis don’t exactly provide to ability to express your creative preferences, but a world of robotaxis that entices people to forego a garage and automobile should probably provide a wide degree of choice and variation.

Getting back to the title, if robotaxis are going to take over, they have to attract people — not just appeal to their rational mind and pocketbooks. I think companies offering such services will find a way to do this, but it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion at this point. I see a lot of emphasis on cost and innovative tech, and somewhat on convenience, but I don’t see a clear appeal to customers of Waymo, Uber, Lyft, or Cruise in terms of upper-class appeal and prestige.

Maybe I’m the one missing a point or two. Maybe this is just a step further down the road that companies are planning. Either way, I think 1) generating a sense of “status boost” and 2) providing opportunity for expression and diverse consumer choice in car and style are two critical factors that must be implemented if the masses are going to be enticed to switch to robotaxis one day.

Images via: NHTSA, Blubel / Unsplash, Tesla Shuttle, and Cruise

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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