Driven to distraction: The rise of the self-driving car experience

We investigate how driverless vehicles could disrupt everything from the care industry to the nature of brand engagement
A prototype model of Google's self-driving car

A prototype model of Google's self-driving car

Driverless cars will very likely save lives and reduce congestion. But for those of us enslaved to the daily commute, they might also mean the emancipation of countless minutes and hours spent stuck behind the wheel.

So what will we do with our regained time, now that we are no longer distracted with the task of actually driving?

It is a question that is increasingly in the minds of marketers and media executives, and one which led global technology maker, Intel, to author its June 2017 report, Accelerating the Future: The Economic Impact of the Emerging Passenger Economy.

By Intel’s estimate, ‘pilotless’ vehicles will free more than 250 million hours of consumers’ commuting time per year in the most congested cities in the world, to be used for everything from mobile offices and meeting rooms to car-based virtual reality (VR) entertainment facilities or even on-board beauty salons.

“We have enough experience in personal computing and data centres and embedded computing that we realised there will be a whole economy that grows up around these vehicles,” says Doug Davis, Intel’s senior vice-president and general manager of the Automated Driving Group (ADG). “As we move from spending enormous amounts of our time driving cars to spending that time doing something else as passengers, what would that translate into?

“We will also be in the realm of 5G wireless technologies, so we will have the ability to consume enormous amounts of data. And as a result of that, we can start to imagine all kinds of new services that can spring up.”

While it might seem like the distant future, trials of driverless vehicles are taking place in Australia now, with the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI) Centre of Excellence expecting they will be part of our lived experience by the start of the next decade. Should driverless vehicles prove as popular as their promoters hope, that leaves precious little time for a large swathe or service providers to get their offerings in order.

Rewriting the rules of auto engagement

But exactly how newly liberated drivers will want to spend their newfound spare time is still up for debate. Even asking consumers what services they might want elicits little viable insight, as ADVI discovered last year.

“They haven’t experienced it, so it is very hard for them to know what they are going to do,” says ADVI’s executive director, Rita Excell.

She has a few ideas of her own, however. “For people who are from a service industry, who have to get back to the office to do their reporting, suddenly some of that travel might see them following up or working,” Excell says. “The critical thing is understanding how soon people are going to be able to take up doing something else apart from driving.”

And that date seems to be getting sooner. Countless trials are happening around the world. New players such as Google (through subsidiary, Waymo), Tesla and Uber are investing millions in the technology, and practically every established carmaker has designs in development. Ford for instance, has announced it will build a vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals by 2021.

Excell says Australia is already receptive to the concept, with four driverless shuttle busses now operating in different parts of the country.

The realisation driverless cars are likely to be part of our near-term reality is being noted by a range of industries. According to the founder of research and creative agency Thinkerbell, Adam Ferrier, it’s not just those likely to be directly affected, such as car manufacturers, public transport and chauffeured vehicles.

“A number of my clients from various types of industry are looking at the impact,” Ferrier says. “It feels to me that if you believe in the wisdom of crowds, then driverless cars will be completely disruptive to people’s lifestyles, what people do, and therefor people’s relationships with brands and all manner of services.”

The key is to abandon the traditional notion of a car and think about it as a mobile platform.

“If you can design a moving platform to facilitate an hour of people’s time a day, what would that look like?” Ferrier asks. “That dead time in the car may then become useful time where you can get something done, like having breakfast or catching up with others, or become a workstation.  Very quickly, it would not look anything like a car at all.”

Ferrier believes now is the time for brands and service providers to begin planning. “People are starting to appreciate the value of being first and being early adopters and linking their brand with innovation and seeing the value in that,” he continues.

“And then there are the other ones genuinely looking at a business model and how this impacts their business.”

Up next: The impact on brand relations

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The advertising impact

For most of us, the greatest gift of the driverless vehicle will be hours of free time. And it’s this that’s of great interest to the media and advertising industries. Even back in 2013, Morgan Stanley was predicting an incremental US$5 billion of potential revenue for media companies.

CEO at marketing and advertising agency Atomic212, Jason Dooris, has been working with two auto manufacturers recently, which leads him to believe driverless cars are closer to reality than many people think.

“What we are talking about in essence is a captive audience – an individual who is there and available and can be interrupted without presenting a risk to safety,” Dooris says. “What that means is you can do anything at all within that period of time. From a business point of view, you have almost an entirely new level of utility development. And I do think with driverless cars there is the opportunity to share a function while going from A to B.”

One possible parallel is the behaviour of commuters on public transport, who spend their voyage deeply engaged in their own personal screens.

But according to Simon Corah, CEO at specialist consultancy, Growth Mantra (and former CEO of M&C Saatchi), a key difference is that the driverless car experience is more likely to be a private experience – certainly more private than public transport – and hence potentially more like a hotel room experience.

“If you think about a hotel room, then you are going to have all sorts of other facilities relating to food and beverage,” Corah says. “It could be like a mobile retail environment. There will be lot of things that will pop up, but we don’t know what that looks like yet.”

Mobility as a service

The advent of driverless vehicles may herald a major upheaval in the car industry itself. One of the emerging models is that of mobility as a service, where consumers forgo owning a vehicle in favour of subscribing to a service that makes vehicles available on demand. This model is already in evidence thanks to car sharing services such as GoGet, and Corah believes the trend will become more pronounced over time.

“The generation that is coming through for whom the share economy is the norm, where access to assets is more important than ownership of assists, then that generation is going to let someone else own it and just use it for the time being,” Corah says. “It is less about you and car ownership, it is more about you and whoever owns the cars.”

According to Excell, that opens significant opportunities for new market players, who might operate a fleet of vehicles offering different services as clients require them.

“It will be a relationship like you have with a service provider, like a telco, where you pay for whatever services you want,” Excell says. “When you think about the investment that Australians make in their vehicle, and particularly their second vehicle, that is generally an asset that sits around most of the time. Cars are parked 96 per cent of time, and are the biggest asset people have apart from their house. So that money you would spend on registration you could definitely save if you have access to a mobility service.”

But if people are simply using vehicles as they need them, what room is there for a relationship between a car manufacturer and the user?

Intel’s Davis says manufacturers place a very high emphasis on owning that relationship with the occupants of the car, but this relationship is under threat on a number of fronts.

“Where that veneer is starting to crack is with Apple and Google becoming platforms through the linkage to your device in the car,” he says. “As those functions and capabilities begin to emerge it, opens up a channel to start to address the occupants in the vehicle.”

That potentially leaves the car makers with the most to lose in the next great evolution of the car. According to CEO of consulting and research company Faethm, Michael Priddis, the biggest mistake a carmaker can make is in assuming their competitors today will be the companies they need to worry most about in the future.

“The companies that operate platform technologies, like Apple, Google, and so on are the ones that are racing to win in the space of cars and transport,” he says. “The battle for the dashboard is no longer confined to auto manufacturers.

“It is the people that own the relationship with the customer that ultimately own the sale of the mode of transport, whether that is a vehicle or a journey.”

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