Here's one way to market the autonomous cars of the future: put them in an animated movie starring Will Smith.
Smith voices spy character Lance Sterling in the upcoming flick "Spies in Disguise." Audi struck a deal with the film's distributor, Twentieth Century Fox, to feature a "virtual performance concept car" called the RSQ e-tron in the movie, which hits theaters in September 2019. The car has all kinds of bells and whistles that are likely years away from being deployed in the real world, if at all. They include artificial intelligence, a hologram speedometer and fully automated driving technology.
The film's first trailer, released today, shows the car speeding along on its own to pick up Sterling in a parking garage.
Automakers are rushing to bring autonomous cars to the mass market, but polls suggest consumers remain skeptical. Only 9 percent of Americans say they would immediately buy a self-driving car if it is certified by regulators, while 52 percent of people say they would never use one, according to a poll released earlier this year by Gallup.
Brands have used their marketing to slowly introduce consumers to self-driving by spotlighting so called semi-autonomous features. That includes Cadillac's "super cruise" hands-free driving technology that the General Motors brand featured earlier this year in an ad that channeled classic Hollywood depictions of the future of transportation, including scenes from "Knight Rider" and "The Jetsons."
But automakers have to be careful about overplaying their hands. In 2016, Mercedes pulled an ad for its E-class sedan amid complaints that it overstated the capabilities of the model's automated-driving functions, which include an advanced cruise control feature called "Drive Pilot."
Audi removes any risk of misleading viewers by putting its concept car in an obviously fictional animated setting. But the product placement still allows the brand to portray itself as on the leading edge of technology that could one day become a reality. "An international espionage story with future technologies that can save the world is the perfect match for the Audi brand" Giovanni Perosino, VP of marketing communication at Audi, said in a statement.
Erin Williams, VP of marketing partnerships for Twentieth Century Fox Film, added that the product placement "was the perfect opportunity to highlight Audi's e-tron technology and give our intrepid spy, Lance Sterling, his own signature spy mobile."
Audi worked with animation studio Blue Sky Studios on the project. More content is coming next year in advance of the film's release, including a custom animated piece featuring Sterling and Walter Beckett, a scientist character voiced by actor Tom Holland.