How Will We Occupy Ourselves When We Don’t Need to Drive?

By: Bridget Clerkin December 8, 2017
Entertainment companies and advertisers are anxious for the day when we no longer have to drive cars and can instead focus on their videos and sponsored content.
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From Ancient Greece to Revolutionary Russia, philosophers have argued that all progress should serve to free man from menial labor.

They would love the idea of self-driving cars.

Once fully realized, the motoring machines will eliminate one of modern society’s most mundane chores—and one of its most time-consuming tasks. The average American spent more than 290 hours driving in 2016—the equivalent of 12 full days behind the wheel. Globally, that number has been estimated to reach 250 million hours annually.

But even as the autonomous autos would alleviate the problem of driving, they would cause another. Without the need to pay attention to the road, what will humans do with all that extra time?

While the great thinkers of history posited that hours once spent laboring be directed instead toward the pursuit of one’s passions, Intel has another idea of what should fill the attention void: even more screens.

The computer chip behemoth recently announced a partnership with Warner Bros. to develop the immersive entertainment experience that will define the coming age of passengerhood. Options on the table include everything from television, movies, and video games, to augmented reality, with the car’s windows used to project virtual images, allowing riders to feel as if they’re in another vehicle—or world.

Still, the coming liberation from the driver’s seat frees designers to completely reimagine a car’s interior—and making more room for screens may just be the start.

Are You Not Entertained?

In a world where cars will drive themselves, with each vehicle programmed to play by the rules, there will be little left to discern one ride from another. So why would a customer have any loyalty to a particular self-driving service?

Entertainment options will not only help people stay sane as they spend hours in self-piloted pods—they will be a key factor in the success of new-age businesses designed around the concept of moving the public.

Many have predicted that the rise of the self-driving car will signal the decline of individual vehicle ownership. Instead, autonomous autos will likely operate in fleets, owned by large corporations like Apple and Google.

But to lure new customers, and keep old ones coming back, the vehicles will have to stand out somehow—which is why the development of bigger and better entertainment is crucial for such companies.

Seemingly also ahead of this curve, Intel commissioned a report earlier this year on the changing shape of the driving landscape, concluding that the cars will unleash a “passenger economy”—an economic sector worth more than $7 trillion.

Self-driving transportation options will offer the perfect place for a captive audience to be subjected to even more advertising.

A portion of that economy—an estimated $203 billion in revenues—is projected to stem from “emerging applications and services” derived from autonomous technology. Specifically, the report imagines that vehicles will have a hand in disrupting—or altogether replacing—entire industries, including hotels and hospitality, restaurants, tourism, and nightlife.

In such an environment, the report foretells, “the service comes to the passenger rather than the passenger going to a specific vendor location.” The cars could be turned not just into mobile movie theaters, but moving meet-ups, with specific vehicles conceivably set for drinking, dancing, working out, taking a nap, or a myriad of other activities.

Still, the freedom from driving won’t be free—and its true cost will be much more than a cab fare. 

It’s All for Sale

The transformation of transportation to a veritable LCD wonderland on wheels will not only create a more immersive entertainment experience for perma-passengers, it will offer the perfect place for a captive audience to be subjected to even more advertising.

The partnership between Intel and Warner Bros. itself hints at as much, but Intel CEO Brian Krzanich was even more direct about the possibility, stating in the official announcement of the Warner Bros. deal that the technology would enable passengers “to view advertising and other discovery experiences.”

(It’s not the first time cars have been imagined as vehicles for advertisements—the idea of hawking nearby stores and services is a major selling point for the company attempting to bring digital license plates to market).

Riders could conceivably spend a sizable portion of those hundreds of hours in a car watching sponsored content. But with their increasingly connected capabilities—and intimate knowledge of not just one’s current location but future destination—the machines could offer significantly more sophisticated and subtle ads, and there’s no policy currently in place to stop companies from farming for and utilizing such data.

Further insight into a passenger’s viewing history can uncover even more information for the corporations to mine—and help them tailor even more precise, and effective, advertising.

Netflix is notoriously tight-lipped about its algorithms and data analytics, but based on what information it has released, the content-rich company can tell an alarming amount about its users from the tiniest details. Something as subtle as the tints and tones of colors found in covers for TV shows and movies can impact anything from viewing habits to recommendations to ratings, according to one report.

At this point in the game, automakers are mostly still focused on getting the vehicles to work at all, let alone work toward advancing their brand. But it seems in exchange for the labor of driving, we may have to turn our commutes into yet another commodity.

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