Consumer concern will need to be overcome for driverless cars and drones to be adopted, says Joel Brandon-Bravo of Travelzoo.
It was my privilege to deliver a main-stage presentation on consumer perceptions regarding the future of travel at ITB Berlin, the world’s largest travel conference, last month.
This was before the tragic news of that a woman in Arizona had been killed by a driverless Uber taxi.
Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, spoke ahead of me and set out his company’s vision of transporting 160,000 passengers a day using super-fast hyperloops.
I pointed out the Sinclair C5, an electric vehicle that came to market in 1985, failed spectacularly because consumers weren’t willing to use it. Was there a risk, I asked, that some new transportation technologies might face the same fate?
There has always been mistrust of new technology. Napoléon Bonaparte dismissed the steamboat, asking how a boat would sail into the wind by means of a bonfire lit below deck.
Henry Ford’s lawyer was advised against investing in the Ford Motor Company by the president of his bank, who thought cars were a fad. But for every naysayer, thankfully, there is an Ahlborn, a Musk or a Branson willing to push the boundaries of how we travel.
The question is not whether hyperloops, driverless cars, pilotless drones and supersonic planes are coming; they are. It’s whether the mass-market traveller will get on board with them.
Travelzoo worked with NORSTAT to survey 6,000 travellers across Europe and North America to find out, and it was these results I shared at ITB Berlin.
First, we asked what forms of transport consumers were most excited about. Hyperloops came out on top, followed by flying cars – a few Back to the Future and Blade Runner fans out there, clearly.
But there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for pilotless drones, perhaps due to their association with military hardware or the fear of being in the air without a pilot. Such is the lack of positivity around them that respondents were more excited about teleportation than drones.
While I find it strange that people would prefer to be atomised and reconstituted than flown by pilotless drone, respondents were at least realistic about the likelihood of this happening any time soon: teleportation was the form of travel consumers thought least likely to be here by 2030 (10% thought it likely).
The most imminent, they thought, was the driverless car, with 51% expecting these by 2030. This is not surprising as they seem to be in the news all the time.
California recently changed state laws regarding driverless cars, allowing them to operate on the road without a human driver to take over in an emergency. Perhaps, then, it’s more surprising that 49% of respondents didn’t think driverless cars will be here by 2030.
The big issue for those pushing driverless transport is the lack of consumer trust in the technology.
Only one in four said they would feel comfortable getting into a driverless vehicle, with 38% unsure and 37% completely unwilling to travel in one, even after rigorous testing.
While it’s clearly a major issue for that industry that three in four people have serious concerns about driverless cars, this feels like the same challenge faced by the commercial airline industry decades ago.
If driverless cars can deliver a better safety record, and the industry does a good job communicating that, perhaps they will overcome concerns, especially as we saw a marked generational difference in attitudes. Only 25% of ‘millennials’ wouldn’t trust a driverless vehicle, making them twice as trusting as over-65s for whom 52% wouldn’t travel in one.
We also asked about future air travel. Overwhelmingly, people want greener fuels and supersonic flights, but while female respondents put greater emphasis on flying greener, men appeared to prefer to fly faster.
It’s clear that, with air passenger numbers set to double to eight billion by 2036, we simply must crack greener flying if we are to reduce CO2 and other fossil-fuel emissions.
But at what price will these new methods of travel come? Ultimately, it’s price that drives demand.
We asked if travellers would be willing to pay more for new forms of travel and the answer was a resounding ‘no’ – four out of five would expect to pay the same or less.
Only 4% would be willing to pay much more to enjoy the long-haul flight times predicted for the Boom Technology supersonic jet being part-funded by Branson’s Virgin Group.
Perhaps that is fine – Concorde cost 30% more than a Boeing 747 to manufacture and operate, yet British Airways and Air France could charge a significant premium on Concorde fares and still make a profit.
Four out of five respondents thought newer forms of travel would be for the rich only, although Rob Lloyd, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop One, claims hyperloop travel will be two thirds the price of existing rail.
Pricing will be a challenge if those investing in the tech to deliver hyperloops and supersonic aircraft expect to cover the huge development and infrastructure costs of delivering them.
But more important will be trust, with drones facing the biggest lack of faith.
Perhaps if new technologies are first deployed for rescue or medical purposes, it would change perceptions, helping people to overcome their concerns and get on board.
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