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What Self-Driving Can Learn from a Legend of Car Culture

Imagine you’re one of the most successful people in your field, and a stranger walks up and says they’re going to put you out of business. They’re not even in the same business, but they grab your elbow, lean forward to look you in eye, and declare that the world you know and love is going away.

That’s exactly what happened to McKeel Hagerty, CEO of Hagerty Insurance, and that stranger was the co-founder of one of the world’s largest self-driving technology companies. The incident would be funny if it didn’t highlight one of the biggest things the self-driving industry needs to get right, which is to misunderstand what self-driving is.

First we need to clarify what Hagerty does. If the Hagerty name doesn’t mean anything to you, it’s because you don’t own a collectible car or boat. If you do, chances are you insure it with Hagerty, which is how they’ve quietly become the largest specialty vehicle insurance company in the world.

McKeel isn’t in the needs business, he’s in the wants business, which means his product isn’t insurance, it’s customer service. The collectible car market is growing, and with it the number of people who expect to be treated with respect every time. These are Hagerty’s people. I should know, because I’ve been a customer for more than 10 years, and I wouldn’t insure my car with anyone else.

That car is a 1987 Porsche 911 Targa. It was my father’s, and the third and last 911 he owned before he passed away 20 years ago. I dreamed of owning one growing up, and now I own his. I’m going to give it to my daughter someday, which is why I only drive it on weekends. It’s my wants car, not a needs car. If I need to go somewhere, I take my leased Tesla, a great daily driver to which I have no emotional attachment at all.

Which brings us to McKeel Hagerty’s run-in with that self-driving evangelist.

Check out more from the No Parking podcast here.

In what universe would someone in the self-driving industry think their success would hurt Hagerty’s business? The universe in which one product is confused with another.

Self-driving products serve our needs. I need to get from A to B, and if the best way to do so is in a four-wheeled vehicle, I want it to be as convenient and safe as possible. Not just for me, but for my daughter who may be riding a bike in our neighborhood.

Hagerty serves our wants. As long as there are people who dream of owning a collectable car, someone is going to have to insure them. Those dreams don’t evaporate because a better way of commuting shows up. Self-driving amplifies those dreams, because the less we associate driving with commuting, the more we will associate it only with wants.

Needs customers and wants customers aren’t two discrete groups of people. In most cases, they are the same people, buying two different things at different points in their lives, sometimes even at different times of day. Life and markets aren’t zero-sum.

What is the ultimate luxury? Freedom of choice.

If self-driving companies are to succeed — and by that, I mean profitably move us around more safely and conveniently than we do now — they need to be talking about how they’re giving us more choice, not less. The best technology works on our behalf, not at our expense. I’m smart enough to know I don’t want to drive into midtown Manhattan at rush hour. Give me a better option and I’ll give you my credit card, but don’t tell me I won’t be teaching my daughter how to drive my dad’s car on Sunday morning.

There’s no reason we can’t have both.

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