Originally published July 15, 2017

Autonomous vehicles will revolutionize not only the ways we travel but the ways we consume content. Though all eyes are now focused on which company will develop the foundational technology the fastest, the future will be owned by whichever company can develop the most accessible, high-growth business model. I believe this will be done by developing autonomous vehicles as platforms for content that can enhance the hands-off travel such technology allows for as well as providing revenue streams that will increase profitability and allow for lowering the barrier to entry.

Attention!

The dominance of Internet-enabled mobile phones and social media have cemented attention as the prime territory over which the biggest companies will fight. Google and Facebook, worth billions, make money primarily through advertising that is delivered by way of integrated services made seemingly indispensable to modern life.

As Jesse Weaver so succinctly said: “Once upon a time companies and services were geared toward enticing you out of your money. Today, the goal of many is to entice you out of your time. Which, in turn, is leveraged as collateral to attract money from advertisers.”

The success of a digital company is much less dependent on their ability to sell a scarce product, as it was traditionally, but is instead dependent on their ability to properly manage and grow consumer attention and demand.

The digital revolution made distribution effectively free, disrupting many industries who relied on their capacity to distribute as a fundamental reason for existing (like publishers, music labels, etc.) Everyone now has the ability, though likely not the will, patience, or knowledge, to create a product and grow an audience. Without the limits of physical distribution, we’ve been flooded with content and while many businesses have died and many new ones have sprung up, the most money to be made is not in content but in managing that content through a platform, such as making that content navigable (Google) or personalized (Facebook).

There is precious little room for new platforms however, and most competition is over the quality and relevancy of content on those platforms. In a content-saturated world, every experience is brought into competition and attention becomes scarce. Platforms make a territory out of a frontier and content companies seize territory by which they can produce profit.

The automated car as attention land grab

Driving is boring. Anyone who has driven for hours and hours on a lonely highway can tell you that. And yet, it’s deadly, expensive, and legally dangerous to not pay attention. Autonomous cars will change all of that. You’ll be able to let go of the wheel and more importantly, look away from the windshield and do whatever you want.

The nature of the attention economy is that everything is put into competition with everything else. This is why Netflix can consider sleep a primary competitor and how podcasts can become successful through distracting people busying their hands with chores; driving is a relatively untouched attention territory that will suddenly be made available. If Netflix could program your dreams they would; until then, they’ll be more than happy to stream movies to your vehicle.

This newfound freedom will be circumscribed by content providers the moment it is newly found, if not set in place beforehand. I guarantee you audiobook publishers, podcast companies, and video producers are already thinking about ways they can create dynamic methods of capturing this new attention territory.

Now imagine virtual reality. Now imagine augmented reality. We’re talking about a high tech, mobile theater that, due to the necessities of travel and commuting, requires we enter it daily. It’s an audience that literally captures itself. And when early studies indicate autonomous vehicles could free up more than 250 million hours of time a year (creating a market of $800 billion by 2035 and $7 trillion by 2050), it will inevitably become the next content gold rush.

Cars as Subscription Service

The transition to a self-driving future will not be a simple one. After having put so much money into the technology itself, we will see these same companies put similar amounts of money into customer acquisition. With all of these companies (Uber, Google, Ford, Tesla, etc.) racing to get to market, it won’t be enough to simply be first or even simply to have the best technology.

Such a drastic change will require consumer trust. My great grandparents grew up with cars after all–with that kind of history, it’s not as easy as persuading early adopters to try another iPhone. Despite the inherent “coolness” of the concept, we’re talking about people taking their hands off the wheel and giving something over to technology in a way they never have before. The barrier to entry for trying this, to drastically changing habits, to risking lives, is going to be steep. As a result, the most successful companies will initially be the ones that lower that barrier to entry as much as possible.

Enter the subscription vehicle model. Advertising will be able to make the dream of an ownerless, vehicle-filled future possible. Users will be able to subscribe to cars as a service, with advertising allowing them to choose plans that best fit their budget constraints.

The barrier to entry will be lowered by subscription tiers that allow different drivers to choose different ratios of advertisement to content they are willing to consume. People will be willing to do this because they want content, they’re accustomed to content being consumed alongside ads, and because the car developers will need a revenue stream that enables them to lower the barrier to entry enough to capture a large share of the market.

Cars will not only become a travel service, but a content service–an integrated way to get you to your destination in the most efficient, safest, and entertaining way possible. Whether they plan for it or not, autonomous vehicle developers will soon find themselves in the business of providing experiences–and that involves a lot more than getting riders from point A to point B.

A new targeting territory

Big data is the name of the advertising game. Google and Facebook have founded their entire businesses on their respective abilities to provide search and social services, gather data on their users and their activities as they use those services, and then deliver targeting opportunities to paying advertisers.

The self-driving car will be no different and the most successful company will be the first that can acquire customers and then offer them to content producers and advertisers as targeted, monetizable users. And consumers will put up with this, and most likely welcome it, because the entry cost to this new, amazing, but risky technology will be drastically lowered by this additional cash flow.

Self-driving cars will not merely be a new space to flow into. Like search and mobile before them, self-driving cars will provide hitherto unknown data for advertisers to capitalize on. We can see a glimpse of this in companies like Waze, which recommends nearby businesses along its directed routes or Shopkick, which prompts users to earn points in nearby stores.

These services will be able to gather data based on where you go, what you consume while you’re traveling, and how those patterns change based on who you’re with. What was previously a virtual black hole to advertisers will be open and rich with potential ways to understand their users. Previous car content, especially the radio, will become immediately outdated because of its inability to be personalized and controlled. The so-called “customer journey” will become literal.

And, as with other services that brush up against privacy concerns, most users will likely relinquish space they once had for the benefits it will give them. The transition between owning a car and subscribing to a fleet will be softened if users are allowed to make persistent profiles such that when they call a car, it will arrive with its setting already personalized: the chairs reclined to the right angle, the temperature at its most comfortable, the screens set to your favorite channels, etc. These profiles will be the anchoring point for their personalized experiences as well as the capture point for advertising data.

Tear down the billboards; rebuild the billboards

The days of billboard advertising are over; the days of advertising with billboards, once autonomous cars arrive, will literally be over. Already, many companies have learned that the best way to achieve audience loyalty, brand awareness, and consumer advocacy is not to blast potential customers and customers alike with the same, undifferentiated spiel, but is instead to create useful content around a useful product that when, combined with iterative analytics, creates growth through a scalable user experience. The user experience, in other words, will no longer be a blaring billboard interrupting a mass-marketed product but will instead be a personalized, pleasant, integrated experience in which users can immerse themselves in the privacy of their own vehicles.

The potential here cannot go overestimated. The autonomous car could very well be the killer use case for both virtual and augmented reality. Virtual reality is clear, the already insulated vehicle experience providing a perfect excuse and rationale to disappear into an immersive virtual world. Augmented reality seems further but is in fact, slightly closer. In 2007, Mini Cooper drivers, thanks to embedded chips in their key fobs, could be addressed directly from billboards with pleasant messages from the brand behind their vehicles. Imagine billboards doing this now–but with media way beyond text and with universal reach.

This potential business model, autonomous vehicle as content platforms, runs thick with cash. The most successful company will then not only be the one that can lower the barrier to entry and lead the technology but the one that can best manage the user experience. Before, the user experience management was largely completed once the driver drove off. Other than warranties and recalls, it was up to the driver to choose and maintain the experience they wanted.

Once autonomous vehicles become content platforms however, even the smoothest ride will be abandoned if it becomes spammed with advertising or cannot compete with the quality entertainment a competitor offers. Ultimately, a vehicle that gets you there slightly faster will seem longer if the trip is boring or annoying; likewise, the fastest vehicle experience will be the one that is most immersive. Other than, of course, safety, entertainment as integrated with a generally satisfying user experience will be the differentiating factor that defines the leading company.

Beyond fantasy

As with other writings about autonomous vehicles, this one doesn’t escape without being at least a fanciful. The essential thing to understand, however, is that though much speculation about the future of autonomous cars is likely just that–fanciful–much of it is possible depending on the business model that the leading developers choose.

As vehicles transition from tools to platforms, from objects to experiences, the most successful companies will be the ones that understand that they are not merely developing a new technology but a new platform. Uber and Google will do well to keep in mind the customer-centric design that got them to this point–and companies like Ford and Tesla will have to be ready to embrace business models more radically different to their business structure than the technology itself.

Beyond the platform developers, content providers will have to be ready. After learning the hard way with Facebook, they will need to be ready to be dependent on the platform for distribution and much of the monetization. If mobile seemed distant from the comforts of the homepage, whatever the autonomous car will deliver will be more distant still. Pressure will intensify to find new revenue streams–through subscriptions, sponsored content, or new, unknown methods. But as content continues to atomize, soon through hundreds of millions of self-driving cars, the chances that enough of those users will return to a homepage to make display ads a scalable financial resource are slim.

Content publishers and creators need to keep a close eye on these developments, if not have a plan or product line already in motion, because what seems like tomorrow’s technology can soon become today’s norm. A likely future, an imminent future, is one where users wake up every day to a scheduled vehicle ready to both carry them to their destination and immerse them in content. Better to be on that menu and part of those users’ norms and habits than to try to intervene later.