To be human is to fear the unknown. And since only a tiny fraction of people have ever had the experience of riding in a self-driving car, most fear them: the loss of control, the distrust of the technology, the fear of malicious hacking, etc. The companies that hope to eventually make lots of money on autonomous vehicles realize their promised riches will never materialize if they can’t convince ordinary people to go for a ride. Which brings us to LeBron James, who I’m told is a very famous basketball player.
Starting today, James will headline a broadcast and digital ad campaign aimed at building trust in autonomous vehicles. The campaign, which features a trepidatious James getting in the backseat of a driverless sedan, will lead up to the NBA season opener between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics on October 17th. It’s the first time self-driving cars have been marketed to the general public, and it’s airing before this technology is even commercially available.
The interesting thing about this campaign is who’s paying for it. Not Waymo, the Alphabet unit that is seen as having the best technology, or Uber, the ride-hail service through which many people will probably experience their first self-driving car. The ads are produced by Intel, the international chipmaker that is increasingly expanding its focus on autonomous technology.
Intel thinks it is best positioned to overcome consumer apprehension toward driverless cars, and what better way to do that than to make LeBron James the smiling, bearded face of its public effort. “Some people are fearless,” the narrator of the TV spot says, as James walks toward the camera. But when his car arrives sans driver, James gives a perfunctory, “Nope.” Told that the vehicle’s sensors allow it to “see 80 times better than you,” he acquiesces, and eventually comes to the scripted conclusion: “Hey yo, I’m keeping this.”
“Society’s fear of driverless cars is somewhat baffling to me,” writes Kathy Winter, Intel’s vice president and general manager of automated driving. “Given that car crashes attributable to human error cause more than 1 million vehicle deaths every year, it’s those human-driven cars people should be afraid of. Yet all of us today get behind the wheel and simply trust that the cars coming toward them in the opposite lane will stay where they’re supposed to. From my point of view, unless those are self-driving cars, we should all be terrified.”
Intel’s stockholders are probably also terrified that the company’s big bet on self-driving cars won’t pay off if people reject the new technology. Last March, Intel announced it would be acquiring Israel-based auto visual company Mobileye for $15.3 billion. That deal just closed in June, spurring the chipmaker to begin making aggressive moves in the emerging self-driving market that Intel itself predicted will come to be worth over $7 trillion. The company recently said it plans to build a fleet of Level 4, fully self-driving vehicles for testing in the US, Israel, and Europe, the first of which will hit the road later this year. The fleet will eventually scale to more than 100 automobiles.
“As I see it, societal acceptance will eventually determine how quickly we reach our driverless future,” Winter says. “It’s one of three things — technology and regulation are the other two — that will ultimately decide the fate of autonomous cars. We can build the very best vehicles with flawless technology, but if the public won’t climb inside, the industry won’t go anywhere.”
But having an international superstar like James tell us to have no fear of the coming onslaught of driverless cars will only go so far. Poll after poll has shown that while Americans like the idea of self-driving cars, they are less willing to cede control of the steering wheel to a computer program. Driving (often recklessly) is embedded in our national psyche, and it will take more than a fancy ad campaign to reprogram us for an autonomous future.