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Self-driving cars are one of those innovations everyone knows is coming – but nobody seems quite ready for. It’s a curious place for a technology to be. It’s a bit like South Park’s Underpant Gnomes, whose pants-thieving business scheme had a telling hole in the middle.

For autonomous cars, the chart would read: 1. Invention. 2. ? 3. Mass adoption! We know the technology exists. We know it’s going to happen. What we don’t know yet is which brand will make the breakthrough that makes self-driving cars a commercial success.

This breakthrough isn’t a technological one. It’s a branding and positioning one. What’s needed is a dose of Fluent Innovation – making the radically new seem comfortably familiar, usually by emphasising what’s similar about an innovation, rather than simply stressing what’s different.

With autonomous vehicles, people understand what they do. But they’re nervous, or downright scared, and likely to see the transfer of decision-making from human to machine as a loss of control.

Enter Volvo, whose 360c concept car, unveiled last week, is – we think – the most convincing attempt yet at envisioning the Fluency breakthrough that will strip away people’s resistance to the autonomous driving concept.

Like the best Fluent Innovations, Volvo have taken something people already do and adapted it. Global business travellers may not all fly first class, but they would probably all like to, and they certainly understand what it is. So Volvo have created a self-driving car which looks and feels like a luxury airline cabin – complete with drinks table, reclining seat, mobile office… and even a bed.

Emily Ozer, from our innovation team, is presenting at this month’s ESOMAR Congress about tech innovation. She loved Volvo’s idea: “The glamour aspect definitely gets you thinking about flying first class rather than barreling down the highway without a driver (still super scary, at least to me!).  And it seems incredibly smart to position this concept in a way that puts it in direct competition with short-haul flights, rather than, say, an Uber.  Makes it particularly appealing to those business travelers constantly hopping on quick 1 or 2 hour flights once a week. “

Emily has nailed what makes this example of Fluent Innovation so impressive. In order to make the new seem familiar, Volvo have had to re-envision the entire category of driving, jettisoning car ownership and starting with the passenger experience rather than the technology.

Rather than take something people feel secure about (driving) and making it seem unsafe, they’ve taken something people aspire to (luxury air travel) and brought it within reach.

Of course, they aren’t the only company trying to make autonomous vehicles more Fluent. But other ideas – like Jaguar’s plan to add “googly eyes” to driverless cars – feel both less radical and more absurd. Perhaps Volvo won’t be the ones to solve the self-drive riddle. But they’ve made the best attempt so far.  

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