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A captive audience? How driverless cars could drive opportunities for marketers

On the face of it, the arrival of a driver-free society presents almost unimaginable opportunities for advertisers, as John Reynolds finds out.

Think of the disruption to ad spend when Apple ‘killed’ the music industry or on the arrival of the smartphone. Driverless cars could prove similarly seismic, sounding the death knell for automotive brands while making kings out of brands de jour, such as taxi-hailing app Uber.

“The way we think about transport and using cars will change dramatically,” says digital transformation strategist Rudy De Waele. “We won’t own the cars anymore; the cars will just come and pick us up to go from A to B.”

Yet the arrival of any new tech boom built around brands harvesting masses of consumer data prompts many questions around privacy and whether consumers are, literally, being taken for a ride.

Will Rockall, director of KPMG’s cyber security team, says: “There is an obvious privacy implication about something being able to track you down pretty much everywhere you drive. If that then gets correlated with other things like credit card purchases and phone use, you really have got something which is potentially quite invasive.”

In-car advertising

Driverless cars are, broadly speaking, being trialled as both public transport entities and as private cars.

To date, investment in the technology is far and wide, ranging from traditional automotive brands like Nissan and Ford to tech providers like Google and O2, while Uber has also splurged investment into an autonomous car and mapping devices research centre.

Should any of these brands magic up a proven autonomous car, the marketing opportunities for them and third parties are potentially bountiful.

Google – often seen as a pioneer of autonomous vehicles and whose cars have driven over 700,000 accident-free miles – appears to be hoping that the new vehicles will in effect be a new incarnation or extension of its smartphones.

For Nick Reed, academy director of the Transport Research Laboratory, which is involved in trialling autonomous vehicles, driverless cars could be comparable to the personalisation of smartphones.

“My Nexus phone is different to every other Nexus phone out there because of the way I have downloaded apps. I think there will be a similar thing for cars,” he says. “You have your Android profile and it comes with you into the car and you have access to your own Netflix subscription or whatever it may be.”

Like smartphones, this will open up opportunities for location-based and other advertisers to hit consumers with bespoke ads on the go. KPMG’s Rockall says: “If I was interested in which petrol station was going to offer me the best deal, then I should be able to have that information shared by my car and sent an advert. Spot ads can be pushed out in that way.”

Similarly, whoever wins in the arms race to be the driverless car of choice – whether it’s a traditional car brand, economy sharing brands like Uber or Lyft or perhaps some sort of private funded public utility which works on a subscription service – they are likely to be in the market to sign up advertising partners.

The look of the car

How these private and public transport driverless cars will look will undoubtedly evolve over time, though there appears to be a trend towards the car being an extension of the home, which will be a calling card for those brands which provide entertainment and communications. Mercedes, for instance, has dubbed the interior a ‘digital living space’.

Driverless cars are likely to appeal to millennials hungry for revolutionising an industry and wanting their cars to mimic their workplaces, so they can watch their fill of news on super hi-vision TVs or work on their cloud computer on the way to work. This has implications for replicating the way we consume advertising in the home, according to Rockall.

“The whole design of the car will change. Radio designs will change, screens will be bigger. There is absolutely no reason why you couldn’t have an in-car channel, which has advertising on it.”

Mike Short, head of research and development at O2, which is involved in trialling driverless vehicles in Greenwich, London, is not convinced by the notion of swivelling chairs, arguing most passengers are more comfortable facing forward.

He believes the autonomous cars will be kitted out with safety information interspaced with advertising.

“In the future, we will have more screens in cars. If you don’t have a driver, those screens are likely to be there to add to passenger information, passenger safety and give you better real-time mapping. This in turn means that the screens might carry some adverts alongside that relevant information.”

As an example, Short says, the maps could show ads for retail offers.

Out-of-car advertising

With the driver freed up from actually driving, there is further potential from advertisers to mine outside of the car.

The outdoor industry, for one, would appear an obvious benefactor. According to David Carr, strategy director at DigitasLBi, driverless cars could “transform” the outdoor industry, which would no longer be bound by rules preventing interactivity and movement in outdoor ads.

One such move could be the creation of bespoke, tailored outdoor ads, says Carr. “If you are in a driverless car and it’s much more of a digital environment, you will probably have some sort of unique ID. Would digital posters be able to react to the types of individual making the journey?”

Privacy

The big concern for marketers around all of these opportunities will be privacy and whether consumers fear it is being invaded. The technology and sensors required for these cars creates large amounts of data on how people drive and where they go. In an age of consumer fear that brands are tailing their every move, consumers will have a legitimate concern of what is being done with this data.

According to Reed, it will be a question of weighing up the risks. He says: “I think it would evolve with the technology. It will be a compromise. People weigh up the benefits. But the benefits are so huge, and there will be ways to address it. Securities will be built in by manufacturers to make sure that people’s privacy is adequately maintained.”

Short is in agreement and points to possible security benefits that such data capture could help with. “If it helps you get from A to B more quickly, that could overcome some of the fears around privacy,” he says. “The police would have a better idea of who was on the roads, so they could use that, not for surveillance, but for better protection of the people on the roads.

“We can also see connectivity helping getting the right information on people; I think it’s less about risk and more about safety.”

While autonomous vehicles still have to prove their worth to society, it seems momentum is behind them. This presents a massive opportunity for advertisers, who – if they remain transparent about the use of customer data – will arguably reap considerable rewards in the driverless age.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 18 March issue.

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