The role of premium services in a connected car world, explored by Susan Kuchinskas.

In a commercial for Cadillac's Super Cruise, a man hits the hands-free button, leans back and hoists a cold one. That green glass bottle no doubt holds mineral water but it's a nod to that halcyon day when we'll all be free to relax instead of driving. That said, Cadillac is very clear in its messaging that Super Cruise owners must keep their eyes on the road.

Sitting back and enjoying a beer while the scenery rolls along is the kind of luxurious experience most of us won't have for a decade. In the meantime, carmakers talk up autonomy at industry conferences but soft-pedal it to consumers. There are three good reasons for that: hype avoidance, lack of regulatory guidance and murky design issues.

Over-promised

It's understandable that carmakers might not want to hype autonomous driving. They've learned from Tesla's Autopilot fiasco and they're very careful not to overpromise. Instead, auto brands play up the safety aspects of these new technologies. In addition to not wanting their customers to jump into the back seat while an autopilot-like feature is on, carmakers have been waiting on guidance from NHTSA about the levels of autonomy, according to Cason Grover, senior group manager, vehicle technology planning, for Hyundai. It's unclear exactly what people might be allowed to do in the driver's seat when something like smart cruise control takes over.

Now that the agency has embraced the SAE definitions of autonomy, when automakers begin to launch vehicles that meet the standards, it's possible that playing up autonomous driving might become more prevalent, he says. Finally, Levels 2 and up may each require different controls and may enable more kinds of infotainment or other activities but how the cabin will look for anything before Level-5 autonomy is still being researched.

Walter Sullivan, head of innovation and incubation for Elektrobit, points out: "As long as we are in the Level 2 or 3 world, for next the few years, how cars will look and what you will be able to do in cars is pretty close to what you can do today."

Luxury or what?

Will automotive brands begin to position their semi-autonomous or autonomous features as luxuries? Or will consumers quickly begin to view these as checklist items? In the short term, autonomy itself – freedom from steering – could be positioned as a luxury feature.

As Level 3 and 4 cars roll out, how this feature is positioned likely depends on the carmaker's value proposition and brand story, according to Sullivan. "Luxury car makers will have to position it as luxury because that is their value proposition," he says. "There will always be people with an ability and interest in paying more for more luxury – nicer seats, a big screen, a higher level of service somehow. Autonomous driving could be a component in that." Brands that stress safety and reliability, on the other hand, might continue with the safety messaging. He points to Toyota's Guardian as an example of the latter. "The name gives away how they want to position it."

However, if we consider ADAS features as the model for marketing of autonomous features, they will soon end up as only an indirect part of the luxury experience. "Over time, autonomy will become somewhat commoditised, like ABS or air bags have been," says Sullivan. Today, these are more table stakes than luxury features for high-end cars. The immediate question when it comes to in-cabin activities, says Grover, is " … how much can we do in giving you some infotainment options that we aren't already giving you today?"

Time for infotainment

It seems clear that less time spent paying attention to the road is more time for other, more pleasant activities. Someday, fully autonomous cars would give back the hours spent driving, turning an hour-long commute into time for work, entertainment or napping. "The ultimate luxury is gaining that time," says Grover.

However, Hyundai's consumer focus groups have shown that this is a foreign concept to many Americans. Many people admit they have no clue what they'd do with an extra five to twelve hours a week. People who live in urban areas with good commute transit options, like San Francisco and New York City, understand the value of that time but, for the rest of the country, luxury messaging might not resonate.

Cadillac will let its customers decide whether or not Super Cruise is a luxury. A spokesman said, "We want to offer the customer choice. If they want to drive their vehicle they can and, if they want to have the car do the driving, they can."

It certainly could be the case that when the Super Cruise is on, drivers are having more fun. In 2017, Cadillac saw a 288% increase in 4G data usage over the previous year. Besides, luxury is relative. Already, Audi A8 owners can remotely summon the car from a parking space or have it park itself. For urban dwellers, that's heaven, right there.

[Tele.Kuchinskas.2018.02.22]

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