Saturday, June 2, 2018

A (partially, I hope) driverless future: here is what intrigues me.

Self-driving Chevy Bolt outside the General Motors Technical Center
Self-driving Chevy Bolt. Photo: GM Corporate Newsroom.
Not long after we published our post yesterday on what the “money trails” of the automotive and financial industries are telling us about the future of autonomous vehicles, an ad for a curious book showed up in my feed: The Big Data Opportunity in Our Driverless Future, by Evangelos Simoudis, PhD, a former IBM executive known for expertise in big-data strategies and corporate innovation.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I didn’t even have to read the summary on its Amazon listing for a new level of understanding of what the commercial and cultural implications are of a “driverless future”: especially for marketers who want to target consumers with relatively long daily commutes, the driverless car will become an important new marketing platform.


With their commuting time newly “idled,” passengers in driverless vehicles will suddenly have “vacant attention space” to target with highly personalized marketing messages, using the various Internet-connected multimedia devices that will undoubtedly be installed on-board.

It should have been more obvious, but this is clearly why, for example, Google has been one of the companies making the most effort to move autonomous-vehicle technology into the mainstream.

Naturally, this concept intrigues me as someone with a marketing background. But it also intrigues me on another level that relates to the marketing dimension only tangentially. When you combine the driverless vehicle model with the other big concept being discussed—a transition away from an “ownership” model of vehicle usage toward more of a “Vehicle as a Service” subscription model, if you will—the driverless car could essentially become a personalized form of public transportation, like a high-tech mini commuter bus designed for a ridership of one (or one at a time, to be more precise).

This took me back to my own days as a relatively long-distance commuter and, eventually, as an "extreme commuter." For about 17 years, I was a daily public transportation user. For most of that time, I traveled from 25-40 miles round trip each day, to and from a job in the urban core of a major metropolitan area. And for the last year of that time, I was what is often called an “extreme commuter" traveling some 90 miles each way to and from work. My daily routine usually involved driving to the nearest suburban rail station, where I would catch a train into the city.

Depending on where I was living at different times during that 17-year period, the train rides would range from under 30 minutes to over an hour. Like my fellow train commuters, during that time I was basically a captive audience for whatever marketing messages were displayed on-board.

At the time, even though my rail commuting years took me well into the online era, the on-board transit marketing media used on the rail lines I rode were pretty basic. There were no electronic marketing devices deployed. Only the classic poster and overhead print display areas were available—no video or audio devices for multimedia marketing campaigns.

Nevertheless, the spaces were always filled with messages from marketers targeting an upscale professional crowd—like promotions from prestigious healthcare systems or universities pitching evening and online graduate degree programs for those aspiring to advance their careers.

If you were on these trains and not napping, reading, squeezing in some work on a laptop, or checking out attractive fellow passengers, there was little to occupy the mind other than starting at the ads. Transit advertising impressions are long in duration and high in repeat exposure. And for rail systems taking suburban commuters into jobs in a metropolitan core, the audience is affluent.

Now, in addition to my experience with the low-tech marketing tactics used on the commuter rail line systems I rode daily for many years, I have seen examples of higher-tech possibilities of upscale transit marketing, such as the Heathrow Express shuttle from Paddington Station to Heathrow Airport in the UK.

On-board the Heathrow Express.
Photo: Heathrow Express Corporate
News & PR website.
Catering to business travelers, these clean, modern, comfortable rail cars are fully equipped with high-definition video screens and audio systems that are in constant use, broadcasting news, sports, travel information and, of course, advertising spots targeted to the upscale ridership. Heathrow Express, which has been recognized with a Digital Pioneer Award by Rail Technology Magazine, touts an exceptional customer experience for transit riders, and I can personally attest that the service delivers just that.

Now, take a moment and juxtapose the example of upscale, tech-driven marketing in a transit setting that we see in the Heathrow Express with the idea I referenced above of driverless car as marketing platform and public transit service for a market of one.

The possibilities are endless, creating a huge space for innovation in onboard information and entertainment services monetized by highly personalized marketing messages to drivers with a relatively extended moment of unoccupied time on their hands. Informational and entertainment content will be the attention draw that will make the insertion of relevant marketing messages palatable.

There are bad transit experiences, but I have actually enjoyed my time spent with good ones, like upscale daily commuter rail services or purpose-specific upscale transit like the Heathrow Express. Good transit experiences can be pleasurable and relaxing.

That’s why the new picture that came together when I learned of Dr. Simoudis’ book—a personalized public transit system for a ridership of one, combined with personalized information, entertainment services and marketing platforms—is evolving my view of the driverless future in an interesting way.

My one concern, as a car guy who loves to drive, is that I certainly hope that it will be only a partially driverless future, with the pleasure and freedom of individual vehicle ownership and traditional, non-autonomous human driving remaining available, affordable, and open to all.

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