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The impact of Autonomous Vehicles on marketers and the environment

Autonomous Vehicles

This post is by Chris Sewell, Business Director at TrinityP3. Chris has a wide ranging knowledge of all areas of the advertising and procurement world and specialises in helping companies understand the environmental impact of their marketing spend. 

I recently prepared a technology assessment on Autonomous Vehicles (AV) as part of my Master’s degree in environmental management. It occurred to me as I read yet another option piece on the future of AV that my report also formed the basis of my own opinion piece on this subject, especially where it relates to marketing and the environment – both key areas of interest for me personally and TrinityP3.

So, I will explore the social and environmental impacts of Autonomous Vehicles as they move out of the current testing phase to a widely accepted technology.  This report will focus mainly on road-based vehicles and consider what disruptions we are likely to witness as businesses, and therefore marketing teams; wrestle with the dilemma of selling a new service without completely cannibalising the existing gold mine that is car sales and the flow on services.

The Origins of the Autonomous Vehicle

One of the first concepts for an Autonomous Vehicle can be traced back to Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1479. ‘Da Vinci’s car’ is a drawing of a vehicle developed by the great renaissance artist and engineer. The car has a boxy shape and resembles a wagon (see figure 1). Sometimes called the clockwork carbecause it’s propelled by springs. Da Vinci’s car was designed as a robot, running according to a pre-set course and travelling a few metres at a time. So, clearly not a hipster’s ideal of a dream-car!

Self propelled cart

Figure 1 The original design of the self-propelled cart (Codex Atlanticus, f.812 r)

The concept of autonomous or self-driving vehicles starts to capture the public’s imagination within the realm of science fiction rather than in the science and engineering world. In 1935 at an expo in Silicon Valley, well before the advent of computers, the modern idea of self-driving cars using ‘smart highways’ to guide the vehicles was introduced (Frontier 2014). One of the more bizarre visions of a future with driverless cars was captured in the 1974 horror classic ‘The Cars That Ate Paris’ (Figure 2).

The Cars That Ate Paris

Figure 2 Poster from ‘The Cars that ate Paris’

Today engineers from technology companies such as Google and the leading traditional vehicle manufacturers are preparing their businesses for the future of mass-market, driverless transport. Whilst it is still early days, we will attempt to explore the potential for disruptions which are numerous. An emphasis will be placed on the key areas of resource usage and importantly, societal change and the subsequent marketing challenges.

A brief description of the technology of Autonomous vehicles

According to one description in the robotics glossary, a driverless car or an Autonomous Vehicle (AV) is a robotic vehicle that is designed to travel between destinations without a human operator. While there are different levels of automation in driverless vehicles to qualify as fully autonomous, a vehicle must be able to navigate without human intervention to a predetermined destination over roads that have not been adapted for its use (Robotics 2016).

To travel without direct human navigation requires vehicle location knowledge. Google’s tracking and mapping technology has allowed engineers to bring autonomous transport from the world of science fiction (SF) to the working test environment. It is worth noting that the late great SF writer Arthur C. Clarke, when writing to his friend Andrew G. Haley in 1956 predicted, with uncanny accuracy, the advent of global positioning satellites (GPS). He explained the way an orbital relay system would be used in the future and ‘…could also make possible a position finding grid whereby anyone on earth could locate himself by means of a couple of dials on an instrument about the size of a watch.’ (Gizmodo 2016). This technology has allowed Google to dominate digital mapping, and therefore its endless array of advertising and marketing offerings.

Inputs and outputs that using AV technology will have on the Environment

From a technology viewpoint, Autonomous Vehicles have been readily adopted in various industry sectors including military, mining and agricultural (Economic Technology Quarterly, 2012). While the technology and associated engineering and scientific knowledge has been well developed, Unruh (2000) outlines the numerous challenges from the interdependent forces that make up the current carbon lock-in from the dominance of drivable automobiles. These include the breaking of the ‘techno-institutional complex’, being the social, firm (business) and institutional responses as well as the prevailing technological system. The existing state is a classic carbon lock-in where revenue continues to fund an expanding road network, which in turn encourages greater car usage (see figure 3); all of which cause a high environmental impact as well as influence societal behaviour. This is all highly profitable for the automotive and feeder industries, so this is the challenge; how to move to an AV future without killing this golden goose.

Automobile based transportation

Figure 3 Techno-institutional complex fosters lock-in automobile-based transportation networks (Unruh 2000)

Fortunately, Autonomous Vehicles do not have to challenge these locked-in behaviours from scratch. Helping breakdown the traditional automotive techno-institutional complex has been the rapid expansion of car sharing programmes that allow short-term vehicle hire. The number of sharing spaces around capital cities is evidence of a change to the driving publics’ attitudes to the long-held aspiration of the necessity for vehicle ownership.

The number of users of car sharing has doubled every 1-2 years, according to Fagnant (2013). Fagnant further argues that this will shift personal transportation from an ‘owned asset’ to a ‘service used on demand’. The belief is that Autonomous Vehicles will address many current car-sharing barriers, including user’s requirement to travel to access available vehicles. The initial modelling of current owner vehicle usage vs. a future state of autonomous transport demonstrates the potential environmental benefits of transitioning via car sharing to a future of autonomous transport. Figure 4, also from Fagnant (2013), shows a clear environmental improvement especially in CO2 and energy use.

Environmental impacts

Figure 4 Potential environmental impacts of introducing Shared Autonomous Vehicles (SAV’s) (per SAV introduced).

Any technology that directly causes a reduction in harmful greenhouse gases (GHG) will assist in the fight against climate change. An article that appeared in Nature (2015) examines the problem of keeping the average global temperature below 2°C when looking at the estimated global fossil fuel reserves. The article shows the various types of fossil fuel, amounts, distributions and various scenarios on usage and their effect on global temperature. The economic consequences of leaving these ‘financial assets’ in the ground need to be fully understood to enable the development of strong social and ecological sustainable pathways. While these economic consequences form part of the techno-institutional complex carbon lock-in, the predicted reduction on the demand side of automotive fuels will help overcome this barrier.

It is assumed that with 26% of GHG’s being created by transport (EPA 2014), the global techno institutional barriers will be lowered as countries look for pathways to meet their legally binding reduction targets to reduce global warming, signed in Paris in December 2015.

Autonomous Vehicles can be viewed as a disruptive technology. The existing products and services that make up the current and broad automotive industry will be transformed despite its formidable powerbase. Autonomous technology, while radically different, does have some overlapping systems and stakeholders, therefore making a successful implementation more likely.

Anticipated environmental impacts

Figure 4 also shows the emissions from the manufacturing of the vehicles. Although these emissions have a lesser impact, any reduction will not only reduce emissions, it will also slow resource depletion rates. This could also be followed by dramatic disruptions taking place as the auto industry cannibalises itself as it develops and manufactures Autonomous Vehicles. If the need to drive is removed, it follows that the desire to own a vehicle will too. Private vehicles are in use for a small percentage of the day making the expansion of lease or rent services more tangible. Less vehicles means less material resources being required.

These resources include:

  • Iron ore (for steel).
  • Aluminium and petroleum (used in plastics production) for the vehicle body, powertrain components and wheels.
  • Copper for the alternator and starter.
  • Platinum and palladium for the catalytic converter.
  • Rubber for tyres.
  • Petroleum for polyester for cloth seats and headliners.
  • Polyurethane, produced from various industrial reagents, for seat foam and headliners.
  • Animal hides for leather seats.
  • Lead, nickel or lithium for batteries (Quora 2016).

We have already outlined the opportunities to optimise the reduced vehicle fleet to deliver better fuel efficiency. Vehicles could also travel closer together reducing the requirements for new road infrastructure as traffic congestion could be monitored and optimised instantly.

Will this become a new form of ‘public transport’? Without adequate government intervention in building legal frameworks and developing policy, the danger is that even with optimising individual vehicles, if AV’s just replace mass transport options then any environmental benefit will be negated.

Building designers would change the requirement for car parking in both commercial and public dwellings as this facility is scaled back. Litman (2012) estimated that annual parking costs in capital cities for drivers are roughly $3,300 -$5,600 USD per spot. This is a strong financial incentive for owners to switch to AV’s. The flow-on effect to the building industry would mean less material usage requiring less material to be transported, therefore further easing the burden of non-sustainable resource depletion on a finite planet.

These environmental improvements align with the strategies to improve eco-efficiency by enabling government, industry and car users to decouple pollutant release and resource use from economic activity. This is achieved by minimising the material and energy intensity, by reducing the number of vehicles as well as running them in a more effective manner.

A more direct ecological impact that is not as widely reported and could be greatly reduced by removing human drivers is ‘road kill.’ It is estimated that in the US alone road vehicles everyday kill over one million animals and birds (Culture Change 2016). AV’s adherence to lower speed limits where roads intersect wildlife corridors, especially dusk to dawn, would help reduce this available carnage.

Many environmental improvements are not yet imagined but in my opinion the disruptions to be seen with societal change will be the most interesting.

What Societal impacts will we see?

Initially, the first change would be that distance and destination selection would be altered as travel time could be used more productively by removing the need to get behind a wheel.

Dandy (2008) sets out a more detailed list of the types of considerations for a project of this nature:

What this does to income distribution.

The effect on population and does this cause displacement or necessitate relocation. This would also include the flow-on effects to existing neighbourhoods.

Employment changes that may occur.

How social changes its living conditions, effects on health and importantly the safety of its citizens.

Changes to education and culture and what recreational opportunities could occur.
The implications for national security and emergency preparedness are especially top of mind today.

The societal response will be led by shifting behaviour from ‘driving’ to a more passive ‘service’ technology. While societal change can be difficult to forecast owing to the complexities of any major technology disruption, here are some indicators on what could happen in some of the areas.

Impacts on Health

An initial societal issue with the introduction of Autonomous Vehicles could well be an inclination towards less exercise. Why walk when you can arrange at the press of a button a vehicle to pick you up and drop you off wherever you require? This will do nothing to curb the current obesity issues that are reaching epidemic proportions in developed countries. Entrepreneurial service providers offering vehicles with exercise machines will most likely counter this. More drastic policy approaches could include government intervention where ride miles are ‘rationed’ by health personnel to optimise individual health outcomes.

There are clearly more important health-related societal wide factors that are not just influenced by individual behavioural preferences. The main one of these would be related to road safety. There are estimated to be 1.25 million road deaths globally a year, according to Etienne Krug of the World Health Organisation (SMH 2016). This is the ninth biggest killer of humans each year. This is forecast to rise to seventh in 2030. Fagnant (2015) argues that Autonomous Vehicles are inherently different from the current human driven ones. They have quicker reaction times and they do not ‘drink & drive’. With the availability of Autonomous Vehicles and the removal of human error, the major cause of fatalities will be eliminated. The pressure on governments to fast track usage and therefore protect its citizens will become overwhelming.

The institutional response will by necessity streamline user uptake. The flow-on public service benefits are numerous and will be seen in other areas, not only in the reduced road death toll. Erskine (2014) has modelled an Australian scenario that clearly shows that, with government intervention i.e. policy and funding for the introduction of Autonomous Vehicles, it will drastically address the high number of road deaths in this country. Figure 5.

Potential lives saved

Figure 5 – Erskine (2014) Comprehensive modelling of Government intervention approaches

What this does to Employment

Fewer crashes will disrupt employment in health and first responder services, repair and refuelling providers (less of both including technology solutions within logistical systems as well as alternate fuel use), and policing – drastically reduced traffic offences (speeding etc.). While these are important disruptions, they would also have a positive effect on the public purse adding to the likelihood of institutional support.

New shared riding services would alter public transport as well as destroy the current taxi hire industries and its numerous full and part-time workforces. These disruptions to the entire automotive supply chain would also impact employment on a large scale.

The movement of freight industry is another susceptible employment market. It also consists of a large and a well-organised union labour force. This is a significant existing system lock-in that would have to be addressed. As mentioned, major disruptions are likely to occur in the automotive manufacturing industry. While robotics has already disrupted this industry, the requirement for less vehicles under a shared ownership model will inevitably translate into less employment in this sector. This will have a flow-on effect through all automotive supply chain services, including vehicle show-rooms, mechanical repairs, petrol stations, car washing, toll roads, road repairs etc.

Effects on Citizens

Fagnant (2015) continues his viewpoint on improved safety and the easing of congestion, both of which are potential benefits to the wider society. Mobility would increase for both the ‘too young’ and the ‘too old to drive’, not to mention the improvements to disabled people’s lives that could be envisaged. These new mobility services do raise the question of whether this would change the demand for kerb-side space. The real question to be asked is would it increase the amount of demand with more vehicle miles being required? While speculation about this extra usage will continue, I would also argue that less vehicles (sharing) on the road in a more efficient manner would more than adequately balance out any increased usage impacts.

The ability to undertake other activities while not having to drive will also change people’s attitudes to transport. Entertainment, education, sleeping or leisure are just a few obvious alternate activities that would increase while in transit. This could have a flow-on effect with people willing to travel further to their work place, therefore disrupting existing population modelling.

An important barrier that needs addressing is the acceptance of these AV’s by the driving public as well as the non-driving public. The inherent human belief of our own abilities over machines is a more physiological challenge that needs addressing. Waytz (2014) conducted a study looking into people’s willingness to accept sophisticated technology to perform complex tasks such as driving. The study revealed that participants trusted that the vehicle would perform more competently as it acquired more anthropomorphic features. This leads to the belief that technology appears to perform its intended design better when it seems to have a humanlike mind. ‘These results suggest meaningful consequences of humanising technology, and also offer insights into the inverse process of objectifying humans’.

There are two other issues in this section that society will also have to come to terms with.

Firstly, a decrease in privacy as the sharing of personal movement data will be a necessary trade-off against increased and safer mobility. Big data already is both an opportunity and a major headache for marketers. Even more data will not necessarily lead to better targeting and increased sales, especially if consumers revolt about even less privacy in their daily lives.

Then we have the complex legal liability and moral issues. Hebelke & Nida-Rumelin (2015) help demonstrate one of the many challenges by posing the question ‘Doubts about the moral legitimacy of such a scheme (AV) are based on the notion that it is a form of defamation if a person is held to blame for causing the death of another by his inattention if he never had a real chance to intervene.’

What it means for Security

Already we live in a world where constant cyber-attacks against industry and utilities are commonplace. Currently, these are espionage for monetary gain rather than sabotage for political purposes according to Fagnant (2015). Co-ordinated and consistent institutional policies and safeguards will be required to ease the public’s concern in this area. As usual, SF has already got ahead of reality in this area with the ‘killer cars’ from 1974 showing the downside of a world of out of control Autonomous Vehicles.


I believe this technology faces many challenges mostly on how to break the existing techno-institutional complex lock-ins that exist around the driver-based model. Fortunately, Autonomous Vehicles can run on existing infrastructure (roads), and therefore this helps support the short-term economic business case as well as breaking down many of the existing techno-institutional barriers surrounding the current automotive industry. Business investment to simulate innovation will be strong, as robotics and automation have already delivered cost saving with these labour-saving technologies.

The main reasons I believe Autonomous Vehicles will gain the necessary institutional and public support, and therefore become accepted technology are, as outlined, the direct environmental and human benefits. Politicians around the world have major economic and social pressures weighing on them as they attempt to meet their emissions reductions targets. Autonomous Vehicles will encourage private investment in technology that leads to a safer transportation for the population with a direct link to reducing GHG’s to make emissions targets easier to achieve.

Finally, what does this mean for marketers? Radically changing markets and more data are just two factors for consideration. Hopefully this brief outline will help inform the debate in this fascinating evolution that we all will be witnessing in our lifetimes.


Culture Change 2016. Driving animals to their deaths Accessed 25/10/16

Dandy, G. (2008). Planning and design of engineering systems (2nd ed.). Abingdon, Oxon.: Taylor & Francis. page 242)

Economist Technology Quarterly, 2012. Inside Story: Look, No Hands. September 1 Issue: 17–19.

Erskine, M. (2014). Future transport – scenarios of autonomous vehicles in Australia and climate change. Practical Responses to Climate Change Conference 2014, 68-79.

Fagnant, D.J., & Kockelman, K. (2014) K.M. Transportation Research Part C 40 (2014) 1–13

EPA., Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Accessed 29/10/16

Fagnant, D.J, & Kockelman, K. (2015). Preparing a nation for autonomous vehicles: Opportunities, barriers and policy recommendations. Transportation Research Part A-Policy and Practice, 77, 167-181.

Frontier. Driverless Cars. BBC Radio 4. Accessed 18.10.16

Gixmodo. Arthur C. Clarke Predicted GPS and Satellite TV in 1956 Accessed 29/10/16

Hevelke, A., & Nida-Rümelin, J. (2015). Responsibility for Crashes of Autonomous Vehicles: An Ethical Analysis. Science and Engineering Ethics, 21(3), 619-630.

Litman, T., 2012. Parking Management: Strategies, Evaluation and Planning. Victoria Transport Policy Institute. Victoria, B.C.

Nature. “Global Warming and Climate Change; Researchers from University College Provide Details of New Studies and Findings in the Area of Global Warming and Climate Change (The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 degrees C)”, 2015, Science Letter, pp. 121.

Porter, A. (1980). A Guidebook for Technology Assessment and Impact Analysis.

Quora. What natural resources are used in cars Accessed 26/10/16

Robotics Glossary. Accessed 22/10/16

SMH.  Power. J. Road traffic deaths are not accidents: safely expert. Page 11 20/09/16

Unruh, C.G., Energy Policy, (2000), vol. 28, issue 12, pages 817-830

Waytz, A., Heafner, J., & Epley, N. (2014). The mind in the machine: Anthropomorphism increases trust in an autonomous vehicle. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 52, 113.

What accessed 27/10/16

TrinityP3’s Sustainable Marketing Assessment provides a detailed evaluation of how your marketing strategy aligns with the required sustainability policy of your organisation. 

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    Christopher Sewell is a TrinityP3 Business Director specializing in helping companies understand the environmental impact of their marketing spend. He is also the CEO of The Gaia Partnership who is building an on-line application ‘CO2counter’ to measure carbon emissions in all forms of marketing communications. Read his full bio here

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