Are We Wrong about the Future of Urban Commuting?

on May 31, 2017
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Over the past few months, there has been a lot of talk about the future of transportation; from the car as a service to self-driving cars. We seem to be expecting many changes that will redefine how we get from point A to point B.

Ride-share companies Uber and Lyft have grown in popularity capturing consumer dollars and press attention, although not always for the right reasons. If making a brand a verb is a measure of success and awareness, then Uber made it as “Uber it” seats quite happily with “Google it”.

Having presenters on tech conference stages talk about how millennials will only want an Uber account, not a car or judging by how many people we know to use these services and are anxiously waiting for their driving days to be over, might not be the best way to access how realistic or inclusive this future is.

At Creative Strategies, we just conducted a study across 1,000 US consumers of their preferences when it comes to commuting as well as their expectations about the future of it. The key takeaway is brands and industry watchers might want to consider the reality of how America feels about this topic is not dissimilar to how America felt about the recent US presidential election. Urban vs. rural, millennials vs. baby-boomers, higher income vs. lower income, male vs. female. All play a role in separating reality from fantasy.

Ride Sharing Services are Growing Thanks to a Few

If you look at where most Uber and Lyft users (based on the app phone usage) are coming from, it is quite easy to spot an income gap in the userbase. 31% of Uber app usage and 24% of Lyft app usage over the last quarter of 2016 came from American consumers falling in the top 25% income bracket.

In our research, only 18% of the consumers interviewed said they use Uber. Another 4% stated they use Lyft. Interestingly, 7.5% stated they shifted from Uber to Lyft as Uber has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. As one would expect, usage grows among early tech adopters. 29% of them say they use Uber with 8% saying they use Lyft. What is also interesting, however, is this market segment seems to be even more sensitive to the news surrounding Uber. An extraordinary 25% said they switched from Uber to Lyft. Millennials who, as a group, are usually portrayed as having a high social responsibility, do not seem to be impacted by the negativity surrounding Uber as only 11% said they shifted away to use Lyft.

The majority of Americans still own a car (82% to be exact) and another 9% have access to one they share with a family member. Ownership declines slightly among millennials to 72%, while car sharing rises to 14%. When it comes to planning their commute, only 4% will consider whether to drive their car or use a ride-share service and another 2% would consider whether to use a car service or a ride-share service.

It seems safe to say the death of car ownership is highly exaggerated.

Design Trumps Safety and Environment

I have been arguing for quite some time that, while we wait for self-driving cars to get to market, there is a lot of value car manufacturers can deliver, especially around safety. Sadly, however, safety is not the primary factor that drives consumers’ purchase. Design beats safety 50% to 24%. Safety is even less of a priority among early tech adopters. 55% mention design as the key driver and only 10% mention safety.

Safety was, however, on the minds of those consumers planning to replace their car over the next 12 months. 49% indicated blind spot warning systems, 49% mentioned parking cameras and 36% said auto-braking for collision avoidance were all things they were looking at. Although those potential buyers might not see these individual features as adding to their safety, they certainly do. The fact consumers do not think of these features as safety ones is interesting, as it could pose a challenge on how to advertise them in a commercial, calling more for an individual show and tell than an overarching claim of safety.

Fully electric cars score high with early tech adopters. 52% see fully electric capability as a key feature of their next car. Only 17% of the supposed environmentally conscious millennials prioritize a fully electric car for their next purchase.

Early Tech Adopters, not Millennials, are Ready for Self-Driving Cars

Big brands like Apple, Google, Tesla and more might all be in the race to deliver self-driving cars but consumers are certainly not holding their breath.

Only 11% of the consumers we interviewed said they are looking forward to computers taking over the driving and 29% stated they would never be seen in a self-driving car. Interestingly, 21% trust the technology but believe regulations will take a long time to make self-driving cars a reality. Early tech adopters are more open to the idea, with 29% looking forward to having computers take over driving and another 26% looking forward to using the time to catch up on reading or other content.

Who consumers trust with bringing to market a reliable self-driving car is not a done deal, at least when it comes to the runner-up brands. Tesla is the winner across all segments but the number two and three spots change quite a bit, depending on the group you are looking at. Overall, 28% of consumers believe in Tesla while 24% believe it will be a traditional car manufacturer. Among early tech adopters, the support goes to more tech brands, with Apple at 30% and Google at 17% but Tesla still best encapsulating the blend between cars and tech with 34%. Millennials also see Tesla as the brand most likely to deliver a reliable self-driving car. 38% in the group mentioning the Tesla brand. The number two choice is Google at 23% followed by traditional car manufacturers at 15% and Apple at 13%. Women hold almost similar faith in traditional car manufacturers (28%) as they do Tesla (27%). With men, the split between the two is 22% to 28% for Tesla.

I am not surprised consumers don’t have it all figured out when it comes to the future of commuting. A world where we no longer own cars and rely on self-driving ones when we are a passenger is quite different from today. A challenge for all involved though, when it comes to brand trust and intent, is that consumers are certainly influenced by how vocal companies are about their plans.

Imagining the Future of Commuting is Harder than Imagining the Future of Computing

How consumers feel about cars and their commute today, coupled with the uncertainty about artificial intelligence taking over from humans, shows how imagining how different our commute will be in 10 years is more complicated than thinking we could take our phone or PC outside of our home or office. Harder not only because it questions our beliefs in technology but because it wants to change habits and practices that have been set for decades. Think about waiting to turn 16 or 18 to get your driving license and how life empowering it is getting your first car. How can getting your own Uber account make up for that? How can you trust a computer in a car not to crash as much as your PC or phone does and knowing your life and the life of others depends on it? Big questions I am not sure consumers have answers for yet.