Technology is having massive effects on the way we get from A to B, and complete shifts are already on the horizon. Incredible products, awe-inspiring technology, and transformative ideas in the field were front and centre at Michelin’s Movin’ On Conference, where I was on stage for a panel discussion just a few weeks ago.

Inescapable throughout the conference, was the autonomous car. Seemingly everyone is tackling it, and excited about its potential. Which is why one moment from the conference stands out.

At one Masterclass called “Autonomous Passenger Car Deployment Roadmap”, Joachim Damasky (Managing Director at Verband de Automobilindustrie, a group pursuing the future of the German automobile industry) posed a question to the crowd.

“Who would be willing to purchase an autonomous car?”

In a room full of tech-forward, early adopters that are excitedly attending a multi-day conference centered around the future of tech in transportation, almost no one raised their hand. Almost no one.

This is the reality of autonomous car deployment. In a room filled with the exact audience that they should appeal to, one would expect the crowd to be clamouring for the chance to get their own. But they didn’t seem to be. Why?

We haven’t truly considered the customer and user experience, and that is the first step.

Meeting People on Their Level

This isn’t as simple as doing exactly what they say. The oft-quoted Henry Ford said that his customers would’ve asked for a faster horse, but that’s not right. No customer would have ever thought a horse could go faster, but those customers do have needs that are unmet. It takes more than simple listening to uncover them. We need to listen, observe, and immerse ourselves in their processes to build solutions that best meet their needs.

Too often, tech skips this step. Some of the smartest people in the world build incredible things and make great technological strides all while ignoring what people are actually willing to use. When we have that knowledge, we can find the best methods to introduce people to exciting new technology.

No Understanding, No Adoption

In today’s business climate, there is an increasing divide between the manufacturer and the user. On mass, people are using products every day that they understand no more than they understand how the phasers work on Star Trek. Even people in tech are doing things they can’t explain. “No one really knows how the most advanced algorithms do what they do,” says Will Knight, discussing AI and machine learning in this piece for MIT Tech Review. The computers just do it.

It wasn’t always like this. My first car was a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. I could pop it open, tinker with it, and get it working again. It didn’t always work well, but I had it running. Today, I don’t stand a chance.

Auto manufacturers have smoothed over every edge to the point where people don’t even know what they’re looking at. Engines are shrouded by giant covers, suggesting to drivers that they aren’t even supposed to know what they’re looking at. All they are supposed to do it take it to the shop and let the experts handle it.

People can’t grasp what’s going on. When it comes to convincing people that they should put their lives in the hands of a new technology, that’s an issue.

Crossing The Manufacturer’s Gap

The companies that do the best job at removing the divide between understanding and use will be the companies that win. If customers actually understand what’s happening, they trust it more. With more trust, comes more adoption.

The tricky part is that autonomous cars aren’t easy to understand. It’s complex technology powering an incredible product. In order to bridge the gap we need to gradually introduce elements of technology to the experience. We can’t take someone with total control of an ‘03 Civic and expect them to feel confident having no control.  Creating a customer-centred experience with connected cars can help bridge that gap.

With a connected car — like the Mojio platform we worked on — you introduce consumers to the benefits that come when you bring technology on your commute. It offers a window into the benefits of digital connectivity and provides us with a natural progression of understanding that can lead us to autonomy. By taking a stop at every technological advancement, we help customers grasp the concepts that have so much potential to improve their daily life.

I experience this in my own driveway. The car I drive today has adaptive cruise control. It doesn’t simply maintain speed, it slows down and speeds up in response to the cars around me. And I’ll be honest, the first time I tried it, I was scared. I knew what it was, I had a sense of the technology that powered it, but I still didn’t quite know what was going to happen when I relied on it. Obviously it worked, and it’s now my absolute favourite thing about getting in my car. This is the chasm of understanding we have to lead customers across: from untrust to advocacy.

Escaping the Echo Chamber

The tech world can be highly insular. We assume that consumers will love the groundbreaking products we work tirelessly on, while forgetting that we may not actually use them ourselves. We may be the ones keeping our hands by our side when asked if we want an autonomous car.

As we introduce new technology, let’s move beyond thinking of the technology itself. Consider the larger ecosystem, consider the action we’re replacing, and — more than anything — consider the customer.