Why Autonomous Cars Won't Pave the Road for Advertisers

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General Motors and Lyft Inc. announced a long-term strategic alliance to create an integrated network of on-demand autonomous vehicles in the U.S.
General Motors and Lyft Inc. announced a long-term strategic alliance to create an integrated network of on-demand autonomous vehicles in the U.S. Credit: GM

With 10 million autonomous cars set to hit the roads by 2020, brands are poised to capitalize on the spare time, and increasing screen time, that these former drivers, now passengers, will have. But is this really a revolutionary opportunity?

It's hard not to think about the implications autonomous vehicles will have for marketers and advertisers -- geo-targeted campaigns, increased opportunity for ad personalization and longer passenger attention spans, to name a few. But slow down. One must also question whether autonomous cars will make a difference when we're already swimming in a sea of smart devices.

True, we'll enjoy the new luxuries of not paying attention during morning commutes and not having to parallel park. But we've been showered with perks customized to our interests for years now through smartphones, tablets and wearables, among other devices. Ultimately, new advertising avenues available through driverless cars will not be as prevalent, or disruptive, as were ones made possible by the emergence of mobile gadgets.

People are, and will continue to be, attached to their microdevices. The likelihood of shifting attention to the screen in an autonomous vehicle is slim compared to viewing the ceaseless content coming through smartphones. The emergence of a new channel doesn't necessarily interfere with existing mediums.

Think about it. Does the screen in your taxi divert your attention away from checking your emails, reading the news or studying someone's LinkedIn page before a meeting? Some vehicles may become branded, and some ads may adopt "this ride is brought to you by" messaging, but potential integrations will likely be ignored, much like having the option of putting on headphones during the airplane safety announcement.

To work around this, savvy advertisers will realize the key to resonating with riders is to supplement their digital experiences with content that doesn't interfere with their preferred mobile media. For example, purchasing audio spots that don't require riders to divert attention from the game they're playing or window spots people can quickly glance over while stopped at intersections. It's like riding the New York City subway: you may notice ads as you enter the turnstiles, wait on the platform or look at the digital displays as you passively ride. Peripheral attention spans will increase, as the need for drivers to pay close attention to the road decreases.

What is attractive to advertisers will be the ability to target ads, a capability autonomous vehicles will provide through geo-targeting. Commutes will be tracked and advertisers will have a daily record of consumer routes and travel activity. Autonomous cars also introduce a private zone, welcoming new opportunities for personalized ads with better precision than those serviced to a collective public transit audience.

Also temporarily helping raise demand for these spots will be their novelty. As we know, there is a greater value for newer ad units before the novelty wears off. However, I predict mobile ad spots will continue to exceed that of autonomous vehicle ad spots, due to presumably greater views of the former.

At this point, there isn't a specific type of brand that will be more prone to purchase ad space in driverless cars. Advertisers will target based on passenger. If business commuters begin using these vehicles, more brands will follow, attempting to target the passenger. We'll see the same trend for all vehicle owners. We can also expect more customized partnerships with car service apps like Lyft and Uber, which are already jumping on the autonomous vehicle bandwagon.

Autonomous cars will serve as a second living room where inhabitants will enjoy recreational freedom. Passengers will be able to use Netflix, Snapchat, Kindles or other services requiring longer attention spans, previously used to focus on the road ahead. Marketers may assume this increased perception warrants a greater push through channels broadcasted to autonomous car passengers, but it won't likely be worth it: riders will still have similar attitudes toward noise and free will to determine which mediums are worthy of their attention.

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