Of Time and Technology

An article in the May 1987 issue of the Harvard Business Review, “Market Research the Japanese Way,” by Johny K. Johansson and Ikujiro Nonaka, opens: “When Sony researched the market for a lightweight portable cassette player, results showed that consumers wouldn’t buy a tape recorder that didn’t record. Company chairman Akio Morita decided to introduce the Walkman anyway, and the rest is history. Today, it’s one of Sony’s most successful products.”

While a lot has changed in the intervening 30 years for Sony, and while the Walkman has been well eclipsed by the iPod and the iPhone, in those early days it was quite a phenomenon.

People didn’t think they wanted a Walkman for the simple reason that they didn’t know what it could do. Imagine how it was perceived: as a “tape recorder” (which it wasn’t, but which was the closest analog to it) that wouldn’t do what its name said it was.

Just think how hard it would have been to say in 1979, when the device debuted in Japan, “How would you like a tape player that you can carry with you that allows you to hear incredibly high-fidelity music, even though you may be jogging?” People would have said they weren’t interested, and not because the jogging put them off. It was something outside their realm of experience.

This brings to mind the 2017 J.D. Power U.S. Tech Choice Study, which was conducted earlier this year and involved more than 8,500 consumers who bought or leased a new vehicle over the past five years. The study included participants who are Pre-Boomers (born before ’46), Boomers (’46 to ’64), Gen X (’65 to ’76) and Gen Z (’95 to ’04).

The study looked at the acceptance of self-driving technology, and there aren’t a whole lot of people who are keen on the tech, with Boomers being the most skeptical of self-driving capability. According to Kristin Kolodge, executive director of driver interaction and HMI research at J.D. Power, “40% of Boomers do not see any benefits to self-driving vehicles.” 

While one could say that 60 percent, then, see some benefit, that is still a large percentage of people who are under the impression that they are far better drivers than they undoubtedly are. Sure.

But Kolodge made a statement which underlines how this is pre-Walkman-like space: “Automated driving is a new and complex concept for many consumers; they’ll have to experience it firsthand to fully understand it.”

And therein lies the rub. There are exceedingly few people—regardless of age—who have had the opportunity to drive in a vehicle with self-driving capabilities, right? Wrong.

In fact, there is an ever-increasing amount of content in vehicles—vehicles at all price points—that can be considered, if not full-on autonomous, then serious driver assistance.

As in vehicles that provide lane-keeping assist. Not only is the driver provided with a warning should the car be departing its lane, but there is torque applied to the steering system to bring the car back to where it ought to be tracking. There is adaptive cruise control, which slows the vehicle down in respect to the surrounding traffic, and some of the more advanced systems not only slow the vehicle to 0 mph, but then can resume forward motion as space clears in front. There is pedestrian detection and emergency braking that will fully apply the brakes should the sensors detect (1) that there is a pedestrian in the path of the vehicle and (2) that the driver doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I certainly see value in all of those functions. And note that two out of three are full-on safety improvements and the third (adaptive cruise) is a convenience feature but it, too, provides safety in some situations.

This reminds me of the introduction of anti-lock brakes in the late ‘70s through the mid-‘80s, when people were convinced that they could pump the brakes faster than the ABS system could, which would only be the case if they were Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man (a ‘70s reference that can be checked on IMDB if you don’t get it).

I am getting the sense that the Baby Boomers—and realize that this cohort is well entrenched at the top of many automotive companies, traditional OEMs and suppliers like—have some phobia vis-à-vis automotive technology. A survey conducted by AAA in February indicates that only 10 percent of Boomers are likely to consider an electric vehicle. And they’re not particularly on board for even hybrids, with 40 percent of Millennials, 32 percent of Gen X and just 22 percent of Boomers giving the electrified vehicles a consideration.

I wonder if these people are still listening to eight-tracks.