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Words can kill: Are marketeers getting ahead of engineers?

What does AutoPilot really mean? (Photo: Fotolia)

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Gareth Watson
Gareth Watson
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As more automated features creep into production cars, carmakers’ marketing departments are entering a war of words. In a fiercely competitive industry, the goal is to sell – but not to overpromise. So, are ‘autonomous’ claims really matching ‘autonomous’ capabilities?

The U.K insurance industry has just released a whitepaper entitled ‘Regulating Automated Driving: The UK Insurer view.” To cut a 28-page-long-story short, it essentially calls for a clearer distinction between ‘assisted’ and ‘automated’ systems to be made by international regulators. Why? Because it feels that there could be confusion amongst consumers as to what cars boasting these features are really capable of. Bearing in mind the levels of automation, here is what the report states as the reason for concern:

“…We see very significant potential for public confusion around the responsibilities of the driver of such vehicles and a wide variation in the level of risk associated with each vehicle.”

Give it to me straight: What can’t this car do?

While stricter regulation probably falls at the feet of engineers, the insurers also point out the important role of marketeers in making sure advertising claims match the capabilities of the car. Their advice: don’t overpromise and consider telling the people what the car’s system can’t do as well as what it can do.

“Vehicle manufacturers should be judicious in badging and marketing such systems, avoiding terms which could be misinterpreted as denoting full autonomy,” explains Peter Shaw, Chief Executive of Thatcham Research – who collaborated on the paper.

That said, “How to undersell a product” is not exactly a chapter you’d find in the Don Draper advertising manual. At the end of the day, it is up to marketeers to not only assign a catchy moniker to the firm’s prized technology (AutoPilot, Piloted Drive, Drive Pilot to name a few) but they must engage in a battle of bettering one another as they convince consumers that it’s their product that helps them to relax and arrive at home safe and sound at the same time.

What does 'Autopilot' really mean?

But even the names have some suggestive power. Take Tesla’s AutoPilot for example. When you think “autopilot” you think of planes. You think of the system taking over the whole task extremely reliably once airborne, leaving the Captain and First Officer to sit back and relax. This of course is not possible with the Level 2 Tesla AutoPilot, yet surely some consumers will find it hard to disassociate this, rendering the feature rather hazardous. It doesn’t take long searching in YouTube before you find a video of a Tesla owner pushing the autopilot limits from the back seat even.  

A case in point: Mercedes 2017 E-Class commercial “The Future”

“Promise, large Promise, is the soul of an Advertisement”. Such were the words of Literary great, Samuel Johnson in The Idler magazine circa 1759 – arguably one of the earliest articles about advertising as we know it today. While it still seems fitting for most advertisements, promising too much in the context of automated driving is a dangerous path to follow. As Mercedes learned last year.

In the summer of 2016, Mercedes-Benz, USA came under pressure from consumer and safety groups in a backlash to its TV spot for the 2017 Mercedes E-Class. The sleek Sedan features Drive Pilot: a Level 2 assistance system boasting advanced adaptive cruise control and automated steering that allows the sedan to follow traffic and keep its lane at speeds of up to 130 mph.

As the F015 concept car is overtaken by the E-Class, the narrator says: "Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself? Ready or not, the future is here." Seconds later, the small print appears at the bottom of the screen, warning: "Vehicle cannot drive itself, but has automated driving features. The system will remind the driver frequently to keep hands on the steering wheel. Always observe safe driving practices and obey all road traffic regulations." Mercedes quickly conceded and pulled the ad, with then spokeswoman - Donna Boland - acknowledging that “consumers could confuse the autonomous driving capability of the F015 concept car with the driver assistance systems of our new E class.”

Avoiding the driverless “death zone”

They say in the climbing world that the closer the summit becomes, the more dangerous the climb becomes. Not only because this is death zone in terms of oxygen levels but because the closer you get to the end goal, the more you push your limits. And that’s where costly mistakes are made. There is no doubt that the players in the automated driving industry are approaching the point at which fully automated driving seems so close it is almost graspable. But alas, it’s not and to pretend that it is, might well mean entering the death zone.

This year we are in store to see the latest ‘Super Cruise’ offering from GM (Level 2), an update to Mercedes’ ‘Drive Pilot’ (Level 2) and Audi are set to launch what they claim will be the first car on the market to reach Level 3 autonomy with the ‘AI Traffic Jam Pilot’. All of this, while exciting and a move in the right direction, is exactly why the insurers’ whitepaper is more relevant now than ever. We are fast approaching the dangerous crossing from Level 3 to Level 4 and marketeers must remember that planting the flag is a right reserved for the summit, and not one step before.

Are you a confused consumer? Do you think marketeers are endangering lives by overpromising? Let us know in the comments.

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Gareth Watson
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