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The Road Ahead
Self-Driving Cars: An Advertiser's Dream

Just about every aspect of the robot-driven car of the future lends itself to marketing. Is it a coincidence, then, that Google—maybe the dominant advertiser in the information age—is so keen on developing the technology?

So what is it about the impending legion of robo-chauffeurs that lends itself to advertising, you ask? Well, for starters, there’s the transition many are predicting from a nation of car owners to one of car users. A fleet of self-driving cars would not only replace many forms of public transportation, it would supplant the need in many cases to own a car. We’re already seeing this in the increasing popularity of distributed, on-demand rental services like ZipCar and Car2Go. Self-driving cars could bridge the gap between these kinds of services and Uber.

Of course, the big benefit of this switch for consumers is lower costs, especially up-front. But as any good internet consumer worth his salt knows, the cost of part of that savings will be borne by advertisers, both up-front and behind-the-scenes. One can imagine a self-driving car featuring ads or short videos on interior displays as it whisks its passenger to their destination (many cabs already do this). But as Patrick Lin writes for the Atlantic, advertisers could take advantage of this new technology much more directly:

Could advertisers really influence the route taken by a self-driving car? It seems plausible, and legal, in at least some circumstances. Say there are multiple routes to your destination. Some may be shorter in terms of distance but longer in terms of travel time, or some routes are equidistant. In those cases, there’s no obviously “right” route to take, but advertiser money could be a “plus factor” that’s just enough to tip driving algorithms in their direction.

Spooky. But there’s more: self-driving cars could stave off the demise of brick-and-mortar stores by physically ferrying customers to their doors. Ars Technica reports:

Google was just awarded a patent for an ad-powered taxi service…The patent, which was first spotted by TechCrunch, would allow advertisers to offer potential customers a free ride to their place of business. This would solve one of the biggest problems for brick-and-mortar retailers: getting customers to their location. The system would offer free or discounted transportation based on an algorithm-powered decision-making process involving the user’s current location, the cost of transportation, and the potential profit from a completed sale. The concept is basically a “free ride coupon” and mentioned transportation modes like taxis, trains, buses, or even autonomous vehicles.

Even spookier. Moreover, purveyors of self-driving car services would have live access to a daily blueprint of how its users move around. In an information economy, where penetrative insight is paramount, that’s a very valuable data set.

Yes, self-driving cars will be more efficient. They’ll be safer, more convenient, and will make our lives more productive. But they also represent a lucrative business opportunity. Think about it: the passengers in an autonomous car are the ultimate captive audience.

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  • rheddles

    Think about noise cancelling earphones.

    • TommyTwo

      OK. Now what?


      • Andrew Allison

        I think he may have been referring to the fact that Jim is wearing noise-cancelling earphones, the taxi was talking to itself ;<)}

  • James Banks

    I would agree with most of this, but the point about how brick and mortar stores could benefit is far from a foregone conclusion. The self-driving car could just as easily mean the demise of brick and mortar stores. Once cars are self-driving, there is no reason to presume that they will always, or even usually, have people traveling in them. Instead, people will probably soon discover the obvious middle ground between going to the grocery store and ordering a delivery: That is, putting in their orders online and sending the car (or golf cart or autonomous wheelbarrow) to pick up the groceries. But, in a world in which this were the case, it might not be long before everyone stopped going to the grocery store. Even people who could not afford their own autonomous car would probably start pooling together with others to rent a robotaxi that could shop for them. And if no one went to the grocery store, it would mean that the old facility could close its doors and reconfigure itself as a depot because it no longer needed to impress shoppers. And, even as this would be more convenient for consumers, it would probably also be cheaper, because a depot would require much lower maintenance and far fewer employees than a conventional supermarket. This is just one example, but if it could happen with supermarkets, it could probably happen with other brick and mortar stores as well. Self-driving cars could be good for restaurants (especially when they deliver) and coffee houses, but I am hard pressed to think of any other brick and mortar store for which they will be an unequivocal boon.

  • TommyTwo

    [Passenger: male, 18 yo. Destination: nightclub.]
    Welcome aboard, Jim. Make yourself comfortable, we’ll be at Joie de Vivre within 13 minutes. Say, what cologne are you wearing? [Pause.] Ah, a good choice. It seems to be popular among the older businessman I drive. Say, do you know anything about that new Axe cologne? I obviously don’t know much about this kind of thing, heh heh, but I’ve recently driven two young men who used it, both on their way back from night clubs. One of them actually was at the Joie de Vivre. That one was accompanied by two young women, and the other one by three, and the young women seemed very into them, if you know what I mean, eh? Couldn’t keep their … Hey, I see that you have noise cancelling earphones, did you know that there is a special sale on the newest model of…

  • Andrew Allison

    Could the ad-supported taxi be any worse than the mind-bendingly obnoxious advertising on commercial TV?

    • rheddles

      That’s why I use DVR and FF. Haven’t seen an ad in 25 years. Makes me seem a little dim in some office conversations, but it’s worth the humiliation.

      Do you get the feeling this may give way to a fremium model? I know I don’t want to be listening to ads as my driverless taxi takes me cross town, even with noise cancelling headphones. Especially if there are driver taxis that want to play dodge cars at the avenues.

      • Andrew Allison

        I wish I could claim 25 years, but it’s been at least five. Fremium is a new word to me, but if you mean would passengers pay to shut off the ads, you and I have already done so.

        • rheddles

          That’s the model, FREE with annoying junk, unless you want the full priced premium model.

  • TommyTwo

    Bixi “is a not-for-profit public bicycle sharing system developed in Montreal.” A dream come true for Greens and bien-pensant folks. Until the outrage started: the idea might be magnificent, but Bixi decided to defray some of its considerable expenses by allowing some advertising on its bikes. The horror! Those capitalists were once again insinuating themselves in our Eden!

    • Andrew Allison

      May we assume that your delighfuly mordant humor has a Canadian accent? Bi-cycle (sorry, but why not!) sharing has been up and pedaling around the world for quite some time. The outrage over over using advertising to defray costs is either disingenuous or faux. Quelle horreur!

      • TommyTwo

        Aurally, my accent would confuse Zoltan Karpathy himself. Culturally, I tend to be cosmopolitan. I do have some association with Montreal. Where else could I have a casual English conversation using soi-disant mots justes such as “bien-pensant,” “mordant,” or “autobahn?”

        • rheddles

          Not to mention so much empty space.

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