There’s a little cognitive dissonance going on at Nissan.
A recent ad for the Infiniti Q50 begins with a shot of a man reading the newspaper in the backseat of a car. The guy gets visibly bored. As the camera pans to the front seat we see no one’s driving; in fact, both man and car are traveling atop a car carrier. The thinly veiled message here is that driverless cars just aren’t doing it for him. Then the narrator lifts that veil entirely:
If you’re looking for a car that drives you, and takes the wheel right from your very hands, this isn’t that car.
It’s easy to see why some car companies might fear the rise of the autonomous vehicle. They will no longer be able to promote the (largely fictional for those of us who aren’t James Bond) joys of zipping along an open coastal highway. Beyond that, the threat of self-driving cab networks could render car-ownership for city residents far less essential to daily mobility than it is today.
What’s tougher to see is why this auto maker, in particular, would be endorsing such a campaign. Nissan, the parent company of Infiniti, is a leading developer of driverless technology among the world’s big car manufacturers. Last year its CEO predicted that an autonomous model with hands-off-the-wheel capabilities might hit the streets as soon as 2018. There are even hints that Nissan could join the driverless taxi game.
Beyond Nissan’s bigger involvement in driverless progress, the Infiniti Q50 itself is a product of much of this technology. Among the car’s automated features are “predictive forward collision warning,” which senses risks that drivers might have missed, and “active lane control,” which uses a camera to maintain the car’s position. A recent viral video of the Q50 cruising the autobahn sans driver, while a grossly irresponsible stunt, shows just how capable of driving itself the car really is.
Nissan isn’t alone with its struggle to reconcile selling the personal experience of driving with that of striving to eliminate it. The Q50 is just one of the models experiencing this industry-wide dilemma—with the likes of Volvo, Tesla, and soon Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, all rolling out cars with varying capacity for going autopilot. Here’s Drew Harwell, via the Washington Post, on the growing cognitive dissonance of car ads:
The new technology heralds a big change in the way drivers relate to their cars. Few features threaten the traditional promise of the automobile — freedom, independence, control of the road — like a computer that can drive far safer and has no qualms about taking the wheel.
That has put automakers in an awkward spot to reach car buyers who are drawn to the idea of driving with fewer dangers and drudgeries but are still leery of self-driving technology. To win them over, carmakers increasingly are selling the illusion of control while, in practice, taking more and more away.
Infiniti spokesman Nick Twork says the “Driver’s Seat” ad addresses a critical distinction between a true self-driving car and a car with autonomous features. A self-driving car—in the mold of Google’s driverless prototype, built from the ground up without a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals—eliminates the experience of driving. “That’s boring,” says Twork. “That’s not fun. That’s taking away the joy of driving from people.”
A semi-autonomous car in the style of the Infiniti Q50, he says, can assume some unpleasant road-related tasks but ultimately keeps control in the driver’s hands. “The idea is you can delegate the driving tasks you don’t want to do as a driver back to the car,” says Twork. “So say you’re in stop-and-go driving, or you’re in heavy traffic. You’re not taking away fun. You’re allowing it to make your life less stressful.”
For now, at least, expect car companies to keep marketing the best of both automotive worlds: the convenience of autonomy with the supposed thrill of driving. Of course, the stresses of driving far outweigh its joys from the perspective of most daily city commuters. So the real question is whether this two-faced approach will persist for very long when true self-driving cars show how fun it can be to glide into work hassle free, as if riding atop a car carrier.