In hindsight, an award-winning campaign such as WheelSwap, in which we used virtual reality to drive tangible behaviour change, looks like a no-brainer. The road from the point that Ford gave us our original charge to the amazing results we achieved at the end was anything but easy. Here’s the inside story on how an insight from real commuters almost led to us putting them in mortal danger but eventually helped them make sharing the road safer.

It started, as most great journeys do, with a series of focus groups. We listened to cyclists and drivers, but never in the same room at the same time for reasons that became obvious:

“I’d love to see how a driver would feel being overtaken with only inches to spare!” said the cyclists.

“Cyclists don’t abide by the rules of the road. Don’t they realize the danger they create?” said the motorists.

What unified them, however, was a grudging agreement that there is and always has been a severe lack of understanding between these two distinct and passionate communities of commuters. They lacked empathy for each other, but the good news is they knew it.

Because empathy is a powerful tool for behavior change, we first imagined The Wheelswap Experiment (part of a broader campaign called Share the Road, for Ford of Europe) as something different. It included the final iteration of using VR to switch the perspectives of cyclists and drivers – each with a valid claim to the road, yet each with a tarnished reputation for misplaced, inconsiderate and downright unsafe habits.

But early on Wheelswap also included a real-world experience that, in retrospect, seems like we were trying to kill people, which admittedly ran counter to our goal of increasing safety. The idea was to take cyclists and motorists to some of the most renowned, dangerous commuter routes in major cities and literally put them on each-other’s wheels. We would rig them up to a host of scientific paraphernalia designed to measure heart rate and brain response and the like.

Cyclists would undertake a hair-raising drive, on real urban roads, renowned for being crowded with hasty commuter cyclists. There they’d experience exactly what it was like to be on the receiving end of notorious bad cyclist behaviors: jumping red lights, cycling the wrong way down one-way streets and pulling out of parked traffic or side roads unexpectedly. And, conversely, we planned to take motorists on a typical morning cycle-commute.

This was the original WheelSwap experiment – a test designed to measure the fear and anxiety experienced by each party and record what came next. Would each protagonist change their behavior afterwards? The results of this plan would then be used to inform a state-of-the-art virtual reality experience where we could recreate the scenarios at scale and drive mass behavior change.

It became quickly evident that this WheelSwap experiment in its initial thrill-ride incarnation wouldn’t work. Several scientific problems presented themselves: How could we control the experiences, with a large-enough sample group to make it meaningful? As much as we appreciate the drama of putting road users in first-hand experiences, even with professional guides, there was no way to genuinely recreate or accurately measure responses. There were just too many variables.

And then there was the fact that this was ridiculously unsafe. How would they feel being passed so closely that nearby vehicles could literally touch them? How would they react to drivers pulling out suddenly with no indication? How would they avoid a dangerous accident in the face of a car door being opened directly in their fast-moving path?

Like many of the best ideas, WheelSwap was afforded a healthy gestation period to grow from potentially murderous to beneficial to society. Our automotive sector team, working in close collaboration with the client, VR production specialists and our SMARTERTM behavioral boffins meant that we had time to chew over exactly how we would overcome this issue. We went back to our prime directive: We wanted to create a meaningful tool that would drive tangible behavior change, at scale.

This is when having scientists in your team really pays off. “We don’t need to prove that empathy works from the outset,” said they. “There’s already reams of research that does that!” So, with our client, we agreed that we’d go ahead and create our VR experience, based on some key principles guided by behavioral science. Then, we would use our experiment resources to prove that this VR experience actually drives behavior change.

A calculated risk, I grant you – but one that our client agreed with (thanks to solid scientific rationale coupled with a healthy dose of common sense). It was enough to unlock our project budget and proceed to create WheelSwap, a VR experience that does what it says on the tin.

WheelSwap was tested on a mix of cyclists and motorists (plus a control group), exposing 1,200 participants across five European countries to the experience, and then revisiting them weeks later. Our behavioral science experts predicted that with experiments of this type, getting even 10 percent of participants to change their behavior would be considered a success. Expectations were duly managed but, after the first two countries visited, it became clear that WheelSwap was more potent than we could have predicted. After using the experience, 70 percent reported increased empathy, and 60 percent had become more considerate when driving or cycling in proximity of other road users.

And this is the crux of the campaign’s success: an idea borne from a simple insight, coupled with flawless execution, a collaborative client-agency-partner team and some sound science drove tangible and meaningful results.

WheelSwap has since gone on to be recognized at several major industry awards, with a clean sweep of “best use of VR” and “best use of technology” awards, but the awards aren’t the point. What started as a “PR idea” quickly turned into something far more meaningful. Increasing safer on-road behavior can save lives.