Automatic for the People

I have been driving a car for about 2 decades now. My first car was a Maruti Suzuki Wagon-R and ever since that one, and all the cars that followed (just 3 more, not as many smartphones I have changed 🙂 I still have the last 2!) are all geared cars. I have never, ever consciously even considered an automatic variant.

Now, I do not know why I haven’t considered an automatic variant. It could be subconscious conditioning about the pitfalls of automatic cars – lesser mileage, more expensive upfront, costlier to repair etc. These may be true and things may have changed too, to evolve better kinds of automatic cars in India. I don’t know that because I’m not even interested to keep track of that. Even if I get into the market to buy a new car now, my default thinking would be to look for a geared car.

And yes, I have never, ever driven an automatic car.

Now, I’m reasonably sure that 85% of India would be like me. I got that data point from this Economic Times article (July 2018) that says that automatic cars account for 10-12% of the total car sales.

Given this backdrop, let me now inform you that I was forced to use an automatic car for the first time in my life for the last 4-5 days. I’m in Coimbatore owing to a personal emergency and had got a Wagon-R automatic from my uncle to manage the travel needs. He did not know that I had never driven an automatic car ever in my life. He simply assumed that as someone who has driven a geared car for over 2 decades, I would pick up the driving of an automatic car as well.

And he was right.

He taught me the basics for a minute. I stumbled a bit for about 2 minutes. It was incredibly disorienting to not know what to do with my free left hand and left foot! Then, I got it.

Once I got the hang of it, it now feels incredibly weird to think of all the effort needed to drive geared cars! The more I drive it, the more I feel so thoroughly awkward of having driven only geared cars so far. Driving an auto-gear car feels so effortless (which is the point, I understand), that in comparison, a geared car feels like a chore!

I cannot tell you enough about the difference. It is like the difference between using a calculator for the first time after years of only doing those calculations mentally! Or, like the first time you see clearly after years of wearing specs (and having done a Lasik surgery/or wear contact lens).

The difference is that sweeping. No, I’m not dramatizing this at all. As someone who has never driven an automatic variant car, I found the difference to be that stark. And as someone who is very comfortable driving geared cars (though I do not like driving, particularly in cities; highways are a different story!) that I can do it involuntarily, the difference in ease of driving a 2-pedal automatic car completely blew my mind.

Why am I saying all this? Because I do not think car makers have done justice to the communication and marketing around automatic cars in India. I don’t even recall any car ads that focused exclusively on the sheer ease of driving an automatic.

The one car sub-brand that comes to my mind when I say ‘automatic’ is Maruti Suzuki Celerio, which was billed as automatic-first, whereas for all other brands automatic is just an extra variant. Even Celerio’s communication merely hinted at the difference while also talking (rightly so) about mileage to assuage that concern (since Maruti-Suzuki has already kickstarted the ‘Kitna deti hai? question long ago).

But I do not think this is enough. If you have a country with 85% of people not even aware of the comfort of driving an automatic car (it’s the reverse in countries like US!), I see that as a marketing gold mine! This is a tremendous opportunity to use terrific metaphors (like my own examples using calculator and Lasik, above) to create at least a question in people’s minds if they should merely consider one. Once they test-drive, things will be clear, in the same direction.

Our cities aren’t getting any better. They are getting more crowded by the day. And an automatic car fits perfectly in this scenario. I’m fairly sure car brands have improved automatic transmission technology tremendously.

Maruti-Suzuki now advertises similar mileage for both automatic and manual transmission!

The Wagon-R automatic I drove was a joy to drive, maneuver, park, and reverse. It was so effortless that it actually felt like I was dealing with a toy! But a very, very useful toy, at that!

The one pressing problem continues to be the price: the automatic variant is about Rs.40-50K costlier. But consider the fact that Indian car buyers are moving towards larger vehicles, away from small hatchbacks. If there is price elasticity there, I’m fairly sure selling a slightly more expensive automatic variant wouldn’t be a stretch.

When you have a market potential of 85% of a country’s buyers, currently sold on another technology, and you know that you have a fantastic alternative to sell to them, how can that not be a thoroughly exciting marketing challenge? The possibilities are literally endless!

To begin with, I looked at my own condition of not knowing what to do with my free left foot and left hand (you need to use the gearbox only to shift from neutral and to reverse)! Conventionally, the left brain is said to be one driving logical thinking, and the right brain is said to drive creative thinking. There is a great creative thought hiding right here! Logic-free driving? ‘Don’t analyze – just drive’?

As I said, the creative—and business—opportunity is tremendous 🙂

This probably deserves a campaign that benefits the entire auto industry in India, given the sheer potential. Much like how e-commerce needed a user-education campaign for a very long time (much of it spearheaded by Flipkart helping people understand how easy, safe and reliable e-commerce was, using characters that are least likely to vouch for it – kids and elders).

Another example is for mutual funds, as a concept, that AMFI (Association of Mutual Funds in India) spearheaded via the ‘Mutual Funds sahi hai’ campaign, that benefited all mutual fund players.

So, something along the lines of Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) working together with multiple car manufacturers to create fresh interest in driving, when it has become a chore. I do believe automatic cars bring that effortless, fun element to driving particularly for weary drivers like me… who didn’t know any better!

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