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We're Accelerating Towards Self-Driving Cars That Will Basically Be Mobile Living Spaces

And they'll be here quicker than you think.

06/09/2017 10:57 AM AEST | Updated 06/09/2017 1:30 PM AEST
Bloomberg via Getty Images
February 24, 2016: Inside the Mercedes-Benz AG F 015 concept car at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.

With most major manufacturers working on autonomous automobiles, and the way apparently being led by companies that didn't even exist some 30 years ago, self-driving cars have gone from being a sci-fi notion to our seemingly inevitable future.

But, as with anything that becomes commonplace, millions need to use it first. Which raises the question: Would you be brave enough to let a robot taxi you and your family around?

It seems an easy one to answer in the abstract. In 10 or 20 years, when the technology is proven to be as safe -- in fact, likely far more safe -- than humans behind the wheel, you'll happily climb behind the wheel (if there is one) every day.

But would you let a robot taxi you and your family around tomorrow?

It's the question being posed to the good people of Phoenix, Arizona, at the moment, with Waymo currently looking for volunteers to be part of the company's early rider program.

Waymo -- the rebranded 'Google self-driving car project' as of December 2016 -- is offering free rides to all early riders, asking only in return that they "contribute feedback to shape the future of how our vehicles will work."

It may only be a pilot program, (perhaps a 'pilotless' program would have been a better name), but Waymo's fleet of custom-designed self-driving cars are now on the roads.

That sci-fi future is here. However, this is year one, and there's a lot of change to come -- change which presents some very exciting opportunities to marketers.

A mobile living space.

For future-tech, Waymo's offering is somewhat underwhelming, mainly because they just look like a regular car with oddly shaped roof racks and a siren on top.

The reason for this is likely to be two-fold: Firstly, the law struggles to keep up with technology, and at this stage self-driving cars are not necessarily legal. As a result, Waymo's fleet feature the ability for a human to take control -- in fact, a test driver will be behind the wheel of Phoenix's self-driving cars, so as to monitor the rides.

The second reason is likely just to help ease us into this new technology -- it will be easier for humans to process and accept something that looks like what we're already used to. But it won't stay this way for long. Why would it?

Upon unveiling the Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion, company head Dr Dieter Zetsche said, "Anyone who focuses solely on the technology has not yet grasped how autonomous driving will change our society. The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport and will ultimately become a mobile living space".

While the F 015 looked familiar enough from the outside, the big changes were what was happening on the interior -- particularly with the front seats, which had the ability to rotate 180 degrees, creating a face-to-face environment with the rear passengers.

This is at the forefront of the change which driverless cars will advance. No longer will the car be two conjoined bubbles, with one person's focus dedicated solely to what is happening on the road. Instead, we will be chauffeured about in a living room on wheels.

Screens will surely be installed -- the F 015 was designed with six of the suckers -- meaning commuter advertising will undergo a massive shift. That's not to say radio is doomed, but marketers dealing purely in the auditory need to start planning for a future where the driver no longer either listens to the radio or enjoys silence -- visual content on the roads is coming.

But, at the same time, multiple screens means multiple opportunities. Rather than everyone being forced to listen to Mum or Dad's choice of radio station, each passenger will be able to decide for themselves what they want to watch or listen to. The inevitable wastage of broadcasting in a shared space will be slashed.

And the self-driving car will be a public space, because private car ownership will go through the floor.

The end of car ownership.

This has long been touted as a possible outcome as a result of the autonomous revolution -- why bother owning a car when there will be a fleet of self-driving automobiles ready to come pick you up with a few taps?

However, the speed at which this will become a reality is set to be shocking.

A report released by independent think tank RethinkX in May this year, entitled 'Rethinking Transportation', predicted that "By 2030, within 10 years of regulatory approval of autonomous vehicles (AVs), 95 percent of U.S. passenger miles traveled will be served by on-demand autonomous electric vehicles owned by fleets, not individuals, in a new business model we call "transport-as-a-service" (TaaS)".

Australia will be a few years behind, given our sparse population compared to the country's sheer size, but reaching 95 percent coverage within 20 years isn't beyond the realm of possibility. And why would you bother buying a car if the vast majority of your travel is done in a fleet automobile?

Furthermore, RethinkX predicted that this mode of transport wouldn't just be cheaper -- in monetary terms it would be free.

According to the report, "revenue sources from advertising, data monetisation, entertainment and product sales will open a road to free transport in a TaaS Pool model".

Cars will cease to solely be a mode of transport and also become a marketing platform unto themselves.

It's therefore not hard to imagine a freemium model of transport, wherein paying subscribers would receive ad-free transportation, while those who would rather keep their money would be served ads throughout the journey.

However, the ads served are likely to again be virtually wastage-free, as the level of data that will become available for marketers will be game-changing. You'll not only know exactly who you're engaging with, you'll also have context -- the vital info that allows you to truly interact with the person because you know where they're going, what they're after when they get there, and what they're likely to encounter when they arrive.

That's not even 15 years down the road.

Free rides in exchange for personalised advertising doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what we'll be dealing with when the robots take over the roads.

RethinkX are predicting unprecedented upheaval in the global oil market, "causing oil demand and prices to plummet, and destroying trillions of dollars in investor value".

But before you sell all your stocks for fear of ExxonMobil tanking, the upside is that air quality will improve, the need for roads will dramatically fall, and land dedicated to parking spaces will become a laughing stock. The old saying, 'they're not making any more land' may be true, but a whole lot of it is set to be freed up.

And that's just what's predicted to happen by 2030.

That's a tiny timeframe, particularly considering we're approaching the end of 2017 and Waymo is still asking for its first influx of early riders!

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