Show Me the Autonomy!

By Eric McCready

I recently had the dubious distinction of backing into a cement pylon. Or so I thought.

I could see the concrete culprit in my backup camera and, although the rear parking sensors were barking in my ears, I was certain the pylon was going to be a few inches to the side of my quarter panel. Then I heard a disturbing noise and my vehicle abruptly stopped. I had been warned several times—by the vehicle and my wife—but I chose to ignore them, and now found myself envisioning a trip to the body shop and an “I-told-you-so” from my wife.

Head down, shoulders shrugged and expecting the worst, I walked to the rear of my SUV to assess the damage, but none could be found. How can this be? I hit it. I know I hit it. My vehicle stopped and my foot was nowhere near the brake pedal. Pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. The only thing damaged was my ego. 

Luckily for my ego, I realized what had actually happened: I inched too close to the cement pylon and my SUV didn’t trust me anymore, so it applied the brakes itself. 

When I had taken delivery of my new SUV, the salesperson conducted what I thought was a thorough delivery. He paired my Bluetooth, set my radio presets and helped me download and set-up an app that could be used to start my vehicle from anywhere. He didn’t demonstrate the automatic braking because, frankly, how do you safely do that? 

According to J.D. Power research, nearly three-fourths of customers do not believe that a new-vehicle salesperson understands the latest vehicle technology. Even more consumers (77%) don’t believe that a salesperson is concerned with how well they understand their vehicle’s technology. 

%Strongly/somewhat disagree with statement

 Show Me the Autonomy

Many new-vehicle buyers are unaware that a lot of today’s technology features are the underpinning of tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles. Taking automatic emergency braking as an example. Nearly two-thirds of consumers do not recognize this as an autonomous feature. So to my consumer friends, I suggest that you practice patience when taking delivery of your new vehicle. Be sure to ask your salesperson if there is any material online, or in a manual should you choose to familiarize yourself later one. If you’d like a more in-depth explanation in person, ask for a follow-up appointment and your dealer will welcome you with open arms. 

To my dealer friends:

Technology advances have led to a lack of consumer exposure, and distrust that the dealer will help educate the consumers. This compounds the challenge car dealers face as vehicle technology shifts from entertainment to safety. J.D. Power continuously researches potential roadblocks and, for your benefit, offer these items that can help you proactively address the future:

Educate the consultants. The salesperson is on the front line and should maintain a knowledge base of current and future offerings. This includes feature benefits and potential shortcomings, and how they’re integral to tomorrow’s self-driving vehicles. Salespeople can also start discussing how these various features work together to provide customers with a much safer driving and ownership experience. 

Educate the customer. Utilize the needs-assessment, product demonstration, test drive, and delivery to educate the customer, and learn more about their concerns. J.D. Power research consistently shows that if a customer is unaware of a feature in their new vehicle, there is a loss of perceived value, and a decrease in satisfaction. Had I known that my SUV would stop itself if it thought I was going to back up into something, it would’ve saved me from a mild heart attack, and I would’ve felt like I was getting more for the $300 per month I shell out for a lease payment.

Keep in mind that autonomous features can be difficult, if not impossible to safely demonstrate. This is where combinations of video-tutorials, graphics showing how features work, and hands-on simulators may also be the best way to educate. A customer that is armed with knowledge, who believes his/her sales advisor is credible and trustworthy, is more likely to recommend and repurchase their vehicle brand, or from their specific dealer. 

Reinforce education. Finally, when possible, provide opportunities to reinforce the education of customers. This can be done via a group setting (similar to workshops offered at Apple stores), a second delivery with the salesperson, or a return visit to a product specialist. Each of these opportunities can establish (or strengthen) relationships with customers, and will likely become more important as autonomous vehicle technologies become more pervasive.

While my ego-bruising experience was stressful, I saved face and acted like I knew the vehicle stopped itself the whole time. I want my salesperson to know that I forgive him for failing to mention my vehicle’s automatic braking. But next time, can I at least get a link to a YouTube video?

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Eric McCready is manager of U.S Auto Retail at J.D. Power. He’s a proud Detroiter that enjoys 8-cylinder engines, and the smell of burning rubber.

The information contained herein has been obtained by J.D. Power from sources believed to be reliable. However, because of the possibility of human or mechanical error by our sources, J.D. Power does not guarantee the accuracy, adequacy, or completeness of any information and is not responsible for any errors or omissions or for the results obtained from use of such information. 

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