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.