How Marketers Convince Autonomous Mass Transit Skeptics

At this point, autonomous vehicles seem about as inevitable as death and taxes. Pretty much no one at this point actually likes driving—when they’re forced to, anyway. Plus, self-driving cars free up time for more important things on your commute, like that take-home quiz you put off or a last-minute work presentation. 

Still, swapping out manned vehicles for autonomous ones doesn’t curtail the environmental effects of having so many cars on the road, even if tomorrow’s cars are all electric. After all, they still have to be manufactured. If only there were some way to—oh right! Autonomous buses! Trains! Subways! Oh my!

Ah, communal…commutes. Marketers are well aware that public transit has a mixed reputation. Some revel in the opportunity to skip the morning road rage and read a calming subway poem. Others would rather strangers with questionable hygiene habits stay at a safe distance, especially—stop me if you’ve heard this one—amid a pandemic with no end in sight. Add to that the optics problem autonomous vehicles face, and marketers have a headache on their hands. 

So how are autonomous mass transit proponents working out these marketing kinks to hit consumers where their hearts are?

Photo: Adam Chang via Unsplash

Hitting the road

One place to start is by looking to parts of the world where self-driving mass transit is just a normal commute. Take the automated metro line 14 in Paris, for example. This shiny, streamlined train has been ferrying Francophones and tourists alike across the city since 1998—in record time. Then there’s the Shinbundang in Seoul, Kobe’s Port Island Line, and Shanghai’s Line 10: all autonomous, all highly safe, and all business as usual in their respective cities. Normalization is key.

The line 14 metro’s website is a great example of how marketing helps to normalize automation, integrating it into people’s everyday lives. Simply put, RATP, the Paris transit authority, treats the line as if it were any other rail line. They don’t go out of their way to emphasize how innovative its computer-controlled locomotion system is; on the contrary, they only dedicate a single sentence to the fact that the line 14 is automated: “You will not find any drivers on the trains as they are remotely controlled.” 

This business-as-usual marketing approach puts city-goers at ease, making them feel that taking a ride on the line doesn’t make their ride experience any different (and thereby any worse) than a manned one. Some may not even realize they’re riding autonomously! So why are people so hesitant?

Working out the kinks

For starters, there are political hurdles to overcome. “Job creation” is one of those things you hear often from people running for office, because it’s an attractive sentiment to pretty much everyone in the working class. So anything that remotely threatens that notion tastes like acid. In New York City, many feel anxious about the prospect of introducing automated trains into the subways due to the perception that they’re job killers. It’s true that in many industries, automation threatens to leave millions jobless

But studies suggest that developing unmanned transit infrastructure for NYC would actually create jobs—an angle that savvy marketers will surely lean into.

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Safety first

But what about safety? Sure, there are valid concerns. Last year, a woman was thrown from her seat when a driverless shuttle abruptly stopped. But last year also saw record highs in U.S. vehicular fatalities, whereas the amount of fatalities inside of or caused by autonomous vehicles is staggeringly fewer. The marketing potential here speaks for itself.

2020 saw some pretty nasty weather, to put it lightly: wildfire conflagrations, cold snaps, category 3+ hurricanes being thrown around like candy; you name it. People are being rudely awoken to the threat of climate change in ways that are tangible and real. 

As I mentioned before, getting cars off the road is a way to massively mitigate carbon footprint. Marketers need to make it clear that this doesn’t mean cutting down on travel, rather it means rethinking travel itself. Without the need to allocate budget to hiring operators, investments into autonomous mass transit would get more people where they need to go quicker, easier, and more eco-friendly. Marketers: focus on convenience.

The fight for ubiquitous autonomous mass transit will be an uphill battle. But victory here is far from impossible. If marketers look to the rest of the world’s normalization of driverless buses and rail lines as a guiding light, it’s likely we can show commuters the way.

Looking for a brand that drives engagement? Contact the content experts at MarketSmiths for messaging and content that drives loyalty.

Devin Raposo

Devin Raposo

Forever curious, Devin writes to learn. Before becoming a ‘Smith, he studied as a software engineer while honing his craft writing short fiction as well as acerbic cultural critique in the arts space.

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