Unconscious bias and the auto industry

How do ingrained thoughts and preferences impact the auto industry?

By Vawn Himmelsbach Wheels.ca

Sep 12, 2021 4 min. read

Article was updated 2 years ago

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Everyone has unconscious biases—instinctual shortcuts that help us navigate the massive amount of information our brain is constantly processing. These shortcuts are often helpful, but sometimes rely on biases and stereotypes. And this filters all the way down into our policies, products, processes and services.

In the automotive industry, this unconscious bias can be found throughout the lifecycle of a vehicle; from product design, to sales and marketing, to the customer experience at the dealership.

Bias in product design

A major reason why bias remains is because product design often begins by using a normative default, said Dr. Sarah Saska, CEO of Feminuity, a global consultancy working with companies to embed diversity and inclusion into their cultures. In the case of car crash safety testing, for example, crash test dummies rely on the normative default of a non-disabled, 180-pound male body.

Volvo’s Equal Vehicles for All (E.V.A.) initiative, based on 40 years of research, has found that most automakers still produce cars based on data from male crash test dummies.

“Anybody that deviates from that norm is just simply less safe,” said Saska. Using crash test dummies of different sizes and abilities is a start. Automakers could also engage a more diverse set of stakeholders in the product development process, she said, from ideation and design to testing and marketing.


Auto-braking systems, for example, are designed to recognize able-bodied pedestrians, not people in wheelchairs. Developers of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles typically use able-bodied pedestrian models in their designs. And as self-driving cars become more prevalent, biases in data can be carried over into AI algorithms.

This is already happening. “Some of the cameras aren’t able to pick up on racialized skin tones,” said Saska, “so it is simply more dangerous for racialized people on the streets with self-driving cars.”

Bias in marketing and advertising

The automotive advertising space tends to be more progressive, said Saska, in part because there’s so much data that indicates women control household spending. In response, automakers have diversified their advertising, especially as it relates to gender and, to some extent, race.

But there’s still much that could be done. Saska has several friends living with disabilities who’ve had vehicles fully modified for their use, “but we’ve yet to really see meaningful advertisements or commercials showing how you can purchase a vehicle and then have it modified for different types of abilities.”

Though progress has been made—such as more interracial couples in advertisements—it’s “still very much a guy’s place. The muscle cars, the trucks, the voiceovers, the rugged individuals,” said Hamlin Grange, president of the Toronto-based consulting agency DiversiPro. But this is where it gets tricky.


“Maybe they know their market and they’re selling to a specific audience—is that unconscious bias or is that good marketing?”

Ultimately, however, consumers who don’t fit the normative default might relate to a certain advertising campaign but find it doesn’t translate over when they enter a dealership.

Bias in dealerships and auto body shops

There’s a need for more education and accountability for inclusive sales practices that don’t rely on or perpetuate stereotypes, said Saska. That might mean not jumping to the conclusion that a woman would prefer a minivan to a sports car, or that certain racialized groups have bad credit, will try to haggle down the price or are less knowledgeable about cars.

Greater transparency around pricing and financing could also help to reveal some of these subjective biases so salespeople aren’t perpetuating inequities, such as offering higher interest rates or financing options to non-dominant groups.

In other cases, certain groups feel intimidated by the “bro” culture at some dealerships and auto body shops. For example, some members of the LGBTQ2+ community fear they will face harassment, discrimination and exclusion in mechanic environments, said Saska. As a result, we’re seeing the emergence of LGBTQ2+-owned mechanic shops like Repair Revolution, Stargazer Garage and Mechanic Shop Femme, which seek to provide a more inclusive experience to those who don’t fit the normative default.

Looking ahead

In many cases, unconscious biases are unintentional, said Grange. People tend to seek similarities—say, their love of a particular vehicle—rather than explore their differences. The automotive industry could instead look to bridge these differences as part-and-parcel of the business model.

“(Dealerships) train their people how to sell their vehicles, how to close the deal,” said Grange, “but what training are they giving them about how to make sense of cultural differences, especially in a market that has a great deal of cultural diversity?”

Automotive workplaces also need more diversity to help mitigate the bias, exclusion and power dynamics found in homogenous environments, said Saska. The non-profit Center for Automotive Diversity, Inclusion and Advancement (CADIA) is attempting to do just that by offering workshops, training and certification on diversity and inclusion—with a goal of doubling the number of leaders from marginalized and underrepresented groups in the automotive industry by 2030.




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