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It's been common knowledge that Uber was aiming to bring self-driving cars into it's fleet, but this week news broke that the company will start offering sel...
Since 2015, journalists have noted that Uber was working on its own self-driving car projects, but no one had a sense of just when the technology would be brought to market, and no one guessed it would be this fast.
Today the company announced that self-driving cars would be in use for rides as early as this month. The experimental program will roll out in Pittsburgh (home of the Carnegie Mellon engineers who have provided a backbone for the initiative). Each self-driving car will be manned by an engineer who can step in to drive as needed as well as an observer to take notes. These rides will be free for passengers.
To help usher them into the autonomous era, Uber also announced the acquisition of Otto, a company that is notably led by former Google engineers who appeared to be disgruntled by the slow pace of Google’s self-driving car project. Otto builds technology that allows current cars and trucks to be converted to autonomous vehicles.
To round out its slew of news, Uber also announced a partnership with Volvo, through which companies will invest evenly in a $300 million dollar fund to bring a self-driving SUV to market by 2021.
Uber’s news was so big and dramatic that it overshadowed some big related announcements from Ford, who announced that it had acquired a machine learning company and was working with Baidu to invest $150m into LiDAR sensors in the goal of bringing a self-driving car to market, also by 2021.
So, basically holy shit.
Anyway, there are big implications for all of this across the market, but given where we sit, the most interesting question is what it might mean for marketers.
Brands and agencies are already looking closely at cars as one of the next big geo-mobile platforms. Companies like Pandora are selling advertising units specifically for auto and internet-of-things companies like Nest are developing integrations for today’s vehicles.
The fully autonomous car era offers something entirely different.
One of the biggest implications for self-driving cars is that all of the time people spend communicating and traveling becomes open for content consumption. Imagine being able to recommend both entertainment content and the advertising to go with it in the context of knowing someone’s precise location and destination?
There are other barely explored implications that relate to what will inevitably be the reduced cost of autonomous driving. In the long run, self-driving technology (not to mention electric vehicles) will make car ownership largely economically irrational. It may be worth it for brands to actually pay for certain categories of rides in exchange for consumer information, social media content, or other measures of attention.
Maybe the most important take away from this week’s announcements is that the speed with which autonomous driving is becoming real, and the speed with which brands and society as a whole have to deal with the implications -- is much faster than it seemed.