Motoring towards a new future: What self-driving cars will mean for media | M&M Global

Motoring towards a new future: What self-driving cars will mean for media

The automotive and media industries are colliding to create new immersive, content-rich environments. What are the implications for advertisers? Alex Brownsell examines the possibilities.

Imagine the scene: it is 2040, and a group of four young professionals living in the Lagos suburbs are about to embark on their daily commute to the office. They occasionally use public transport, but dislike how overcrowded it can become. Instead, they have agreed upon a car-sharing arrangement, as their places of work are located fairly close together.

This is no ordinary car, either. For a start, none of the four has a driving license – and nor do they require one. The self-driving car is programmed to pick up all four from their homes and drive them to work. In fact, they do not even own the vehicle: it is funded by the advertising displayed as the group sit down to watch the latest smash-hit Nollywood movie.

Fanciful stuff, perhaps, but we do appear to be witnessing a coming together of the traditional automotive and media industries.

The hottest story in car-making right now is Google’s experimental self-driving car project, and the impact it will have upon car ownership. IHS Automotive has predicted that, by 2035, some 12m self-driving vehicles will be sold annually, accounting for nearly 10% of the global total. In the research firm’s latest report, entitled ‘When, not if’, it argues that “nearly all” cars will become self-driving “sometime after 2050”.

At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Mercedes-Benz caused a stir with its sleek-looking driverless car concept, the F015 Luxury in Motion, complete with four seats which can turn around to face each other (see video below).

Even a cursory glance at coverage of this month’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona will have revealed that in-car connectivity is a huge area of interest for global technology giants. In one of the event’s major announcements, Audi announced a tie-up with AT&T that will see it offer 4G LTE in its vehicles from 2016.

Also speaking at MWC, Renault-Nissan global chief executive Carlos Ghosn admitted that ‘autonomous vehicles’ – a step down from self-driving, in which humans retain control of most driving elements – are “resonating” with consumers and will soon “transform our product”.

Teenage angst

The elephant in the room is the fear that younger, urban drivers are snubbing car ownership, setting in motion a potentially cataclysmic future decline in vehicle sales.

Plenty of reports have argued that millennial consumers do not see car ownership as a rite of passage as their parents did. A 2013 study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that Baby Boomers aged 55 to 64 were 15 times more likely to buy a vehicle than US consumers aged 18 to 24.

Given the disparity in disposable income, this is perhaps an unfair comparison. But for city-dwelling millennials, car ownership is becoming both unnecessary – thanks to worldwide investments in urban transport infrastructure – as well expensive. Others claim the car, once a symbol of rebellion and independence, has lost its status to devices such as smartphone, which allow youngsters to connect and socialise.

The elephant in the room is the fear that younger, urban drivers are snubbing car ownership, setting in motion a potentially cataclysmic future decline in vehicle sales.

Some manufacturers have identified this dangerous trend, and are trying to make cars more social environments. Ford, long a pioneer in the development of in-car technology, is reportedly seeking to partner with Chinese internet firm Tencent to integrate its WeChat messaging app into its dashboard, allowing young drivers to remain “informed” and “entertained” when stuck in inner-city traffic jams.

Honda Europe marketing director Martin Moll agrees that media-rich experiences will help automotive brands to re-connect with younger buyers: “I think embedded multi-media and high-tech gadgets are what drivers will want drivers will want in the future. Younger people want more control, rather than less, at that age.”

Yet, there is only so much entertainment which can be offered while drivers must keep their eyes on the road. And it is at this junction where things become more interesting for the media industry.

Content journey

There are many obstacles to widespread take-up of self-driving cars, not least the potential safety concerns. Even Google chief executive Eric Schmidt admitting his experience of being whisked off by such a vehicle was not “altogether happy”.

Others, such as Honda’s Moll, believe that people are too wedded to the inherent “control and freedom” of driving a car. “Rebooting a mobile to reset to default settings is one thing; it’s hardly the same if a car loses control,” he adds.

But if such concerns can be quelled, the driverless, urban commuter vehicle can become a major new captive environment for advertisers.

According to Nick Vale, global head of planning at GroupM agency Maxus, the rise of ecommerce and social media has caused a decline in shared community spaces. The car, therefore, can become that new “third space” for advertisers to communicate branded messages and experiences – a physical centre-point for communities, where people “sit together and talk about stuff”.

“What happens if you take a car, fill it full of friends and stick a bloody great TV in it? Then it becomes one of the most interesting entertainment moments, helping pass the time as you’re sat in traffic for three hours in Jakarta on your way into the office each day. It becomes a very potent environment,” says Vale.

The prohibitive costs of ownership will likely lead to the rise of “advertiser-funded journeys”, he adds.

The makers of these vehicles – be it Google, Ford or whoever else – will become media owners. They may produce their own content, or partner with established publishers and broadcasters to stream their programming. The type of content offered within the vehicles may become the marketing USP.

Consumers are already used to managing their travel through digital devices – the rise and rise of taxi apps such as Uber and GrabTaxi pays testament to this. Uber has even kicked off its own self-driving vehicle research project. It is not a big leap to envisaging consumers selecting their ride to work with a swipe of a finger, based on whether the ride is funded and curated by CNN, Discovery or Viacom.

For now, the primary role of a car is to get consumers from ‘A’ to ‘B’, and that is unlikely to change any time soon. But, one day, commuters may relish the traffic jams they once berated, allowing them to chance to finish watching a TV show or movie before they arrive at work. The wheels have been set in motion – it is only a question of soon we get there.

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