Opinion: Don’t forget consumers on road to autonomous driving

While there is much uncertainty around what the future of the auto industry might bring, one thing is glaringly clear: self-driving and electric vehicles are coming. It seems like a daily occurrence that a major car manufacturer announces plans to go all-electric or ramp up development of autonomous technology. However, many companies seem to be forgetting one major factor, which will ultimately drive the speed of the transition to electric and self-driving vehicles — the consumer.

We’re already on the road to autonomous

Both the industry and consumers alike are already on the road to self-driving and electric vehicles. If you’ve ever used any of the ride-sharing apps, such as Uber, Lyft, and Via, then you’re already working to bridge the gap. New subscription models have also gained prominence recently, with leading manufacturers, such as Porsche, now launching vehicle subscription services. Georgia is helping lead the charge in this new model, as Porsche’s pilot program will begin right here in Atlanta.

As automotive industry leaders, Cox Automotive is constantly exploring new ways to transform the way vehicles are bought, sold, and owned, given the changing needs of the consumer. We introduced Flexdrive, an all-inclusive vehicle subscription service that offers a convenient alternative to traditional car ownership, back in 2014.

Flexdrive gives consumers an option in addition to buying or leasing — now they can subscribe to a vehicle on a weekly or monthly basis, and the cost includes everything but gas. We believe this is a first step toward the autonomous fleets of the future, as it moves consumers from purchasing a single vehicle for three to seven years to a shorter-term commitment that can more easily shift with their changing lives. Consumers can “flex” a vehicle in Atlanta and three other markets, with new markets coming soon across the U.S.

Further, public and private partnerships are already making inroads on this autonomous future. Just last month, the city of Atlanta partnered with Georgia Tech to launch the North Avenue Smart Corridor Project, which utilizes the latest technology to facilitate and promote safety for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, as well as increase the flow of car and bus traffic based on real-time conditions.

While these advanced technologies are great first steps to paving the way for autonomous vehicles, the fate of the industry ultimately depends on the consumer.

The consumer is in the driver’s seat

For the mass rollout of autonomous and electric vehicles to be a success, the consumer needs to be on board, but make no mistake, most aren’t there yet. Not even close.

To get consumers to give electric and self-driving vehicles the green light, they must be convinced that this new path forward is demonstrably better. Results from the Future Autonomous Vehicle Study, conducted by Cox Automotive's Kelley Blue Book, show that consumers aren't ready to relinquish the driver's seat yet.

In fact, when asked about their thoughts on self-driving cars, 80 percent of the 2,200 consumers surveyed said that people should always have the option to drive themselves; 64 percent said they needed to be in control of the vehicle; 62 percent said they loved to drive and preferred to be the driver rather than the passenger of a vehicle.

Winning the consumer’s acceptance

In order to earn wide acceptance of autonomous vehicles, consumers need proof that these vehicles are economically feasible and will enhance their lives. This is where education comes into play.

Take Steve Jobs for example. When introducing the world to the home computer, he was originally met with disdain. He had to focus heavily on educating the consumer about this foreign object and demonstrate how the computers we are now glued to could better our daily lives.

Slowly introducing smart technology and new consumer mobility options into the driving experience will be an influential first step to bridging the gap between today’s traditional vehicle sales model and the industry’s electric and self-driving future. Facilitating this guidance, whether here in Atlanta, or in any other major city or town in the U.S., is the key to igniting our autonomous future.

David Liniado is vice president of consumer mobility at Cox Automotive, a unit of Cox Enterprises Inc., which also owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.