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By: Thomas Bloch, Associate Director – Communications Planning, PHD, working exclusively on Volkswagen Group

Amid GM’s increased production of self-driving Chevy Bolts, Nvidia’s partnership with Volvo, Volkswagen working to power their cars’ AI features and Tesla’s full scale Model 3 launch, the conversation has fully shifted from “if” autonomy will become the new normal to “when”.  While other industries are looking to this revolution with dreams of improved productivity, better safety, or reduced traffic, some forward-thinking media specialists are beginning to see it for something else: the next great media channel.

In autonomy lies an opportunity that Apple refers to as “the ultimate mobile device” or Bosch who, channeling famed sociologist Ray Oldenberg describe as a “third living space”.  The latter sounds closer to home (forgive the pun), but there’s still, even more to it than that. Driven by accelerating advances in media technology, the car will become something akin to an enclosed, mobile, omni-sensory interactive medium, in which screens, augmented reality, audio, haptic feedback, temperature and even aromas, will be used individually, and in concert, to produce immersive experiences that are, at this point, hard to even imagine. The car will soon become something unprecedented in its capabilities to entertain, comfort, inform and interact with us, in a way that no mobile device, living space, or single medium ever has.  While the timeframe for the full realization of this future is hard to predict, there exists some undeniable forces that have the potential to bring this media revolution sooner than one would think.

In the latest book from PHD, “Merge | The Closing Gap Between Technology and Us”, the case is made that transformational advances in widespread technology adoption will come from moments in which tech “unshackles us” from an unpleasant restriction. For example, in the U.S. alone, 218 million people spend 17,600 minutes every year behind the wheel – that’s a lot of attention and time to be unshackled from with the rise of autonomous vehicles. Once the technological gaps have been closed, adoption growth will be exponential as brands and marketers clamor to reclaim their attention. Scale will be limited only by affordability, and, as with all advances of this sort, affordability is a matter of time. Competition and commoditization will drive down the price of moldable OLED screens, AR glasses, wearable tech and things of the like, making their application to the auto experience inevitable.

Another media revolution that waits just around the corner is 5G.  In a few years, the next generation of mobile networks will roll out and with it will come data transfer speeds that are a factor of 100x that of 4G, along with better connectivity between devices and internet-enabled objects.  This is the key that will unlock everything for autonomous cars and the media experiences therein.  Soon, downloading a full VR movie to your phone will take a moment.  A 500GB multi-media experience that contains high-quality visual, aural, haptic and temperature data will take a matter of seconds to move from the cloud to your vehicle.

Taking these factors into account, it is not difficult to imagine a near-future in which autonomous cars are outfitted with multi-media capabilities that are powered by a staggering amount of content, all of which is instantly accessible from anywhere. There are, of course, numerous barriers that can delay the autonomous revolution, including governmental regulation, public acceptance and rate of technological advancement. But, given the latent hunger to unshackle from the traditional car model’s bounds, the exponential rate of advancement in the contributing technology, and recent gains in regulatory approval, these barriers don’t stand a chance.

This revolution has big implications for dozens of industries – advertising being one of them.  Media agencies will soon have access to an incredible trove of data with which they can target and design communications for brands’ audiences.  At the agency’s disposal will be rich caches of information on car make and model, current and past destinations, speed of travel, passenger demographics, present and future weather, traffic conditions, nearby landmarks and retail locations – the list goes on.  Let’s briefly consider what might soon be possible from a marketing perspective in this new channel for a coffee retail chain.  An autonomous car, transporting a person with their coffee app, passes one of their locations on their way to work every morning.  Having identified them as a person approaching a coffee store on their predetermined route, we can programmatically target that rider with a dynamic in-feed message asking if they’d like to make a stop before work to pick up a soy latte (which we know to be their preferred order at this time of day).  If the rider indicates that they would indeed enjoy such a pre-work pick-me-up, their car will be directed to make a stop at that nearby coffee chain location, at which they will simply pick up their coffee at the counter since payment would already be processed via their coffee app.

If this example produces some anxiety due to the level of individual disruption that allows for, that is understandable.  Appreciating how messaging and storytelling can and should fit into this medium is going to be the creative agency’s great challenge.  We will need to be extraordinarily mindful in how we use this space to our clients’ advantage so as to not overstep our bounds.  In a media environment in which all nearly all of our senses can be stimulated, creative agencies will need to employ experts on each.  The time may be near when “Brand Aroma Specialist” is a recognizable title in our industry.

Implications are equally as inspiring and daunting for auto brands.  Decisions will need to be made about what role they wish to play as the producer of this new media “device”.  Will they follow the model that the major video game consoles have already hewn, licensing their tech to various content providers while fighting for valuable exclusive titles? And how much control can and should they exert over the “pipes” of their cars?  Regardless of where those chips fall, they will be in the position to collect an amazing amount of data from their cars and the consumers that ride in them. In a category where traditional ownership and profitability dynamics are shifting, licensing APIs and selling data will become an increasingly bigger aspect of how car brands make money.

Thomas Bloch is Associate Director – Communications Planning at Omnicom’s media agency PHD, working exclusively on Volkswagen Group.
PHD’s seventh publication “Merge | The closing gap between technology and us” is currently available via Amazon and the PHD Media app.