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Autonomous vehicles: hard times for car advertising

January 26, 2017

In this season of car shows, manufacturers are pulling out all the innovations. The cars presented are more ecological, better performing and, above all, increasingly more autonomous. The question is no longer “if”, but when we’ll finally have driverless cars. In fact, tech optimists are predicting that if you have a child under the age of 5, there’s no point in saving up for driving lessons. But for ad agencies, this change poses some existential questions. How will cars be sold when we’ve lost the pleasure of driving and the adrenaline it brings, of coasting along winding mountain roads?

One option is to start selling “living rooms on wheels”. Comfortable seats, multiple screens, relaxation areas. The challenge faced by carmakers will be: how much are consumers willing to spend if we’re not actually driving it? If you’re not driving, then why pay for added horsepower? It’s useless to spend big bucks on the engine if all vehicles move in the same line and keep to a speed determined by the on-board computer and GPS. In a sense, the essence of the car industry may soon look like the aviation industry’s, with consumers buying a service, an experience, comfort… and not a vehicle. The whole category will become more sensible. The emotional ties between homo economicus and his car brand will be replaced by the purchase of a commodity. Will the decision-making process, therefore, come to rest on the vehicle’s ability to get you from Point A to Point B in the safest and more economical way possible? Some will definitely pay for a more spacious or luxury automobile, in the same way that some people pay to travel in first class. But if the argument of a superior engine or driving experience is taken out of the equation, the guide to selling cars will have to be rewritten.

On the flip side, if you already don’t drive, you can fill your travel time with reading or consuming media. Several analysts have suggested that Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is so heavily invested in the development of driverless cars because it wants to claim your daily 50-minute commute, either for its search engine or for YouTube. For media and web giants, monetizing this new segment of time may be as profitable as selling cars.

Where does the passion of car enthusiasts fit in all this? All those men and women who love to drive won’t be happy once relegated to the backseat. What will happen to that feeling of freedom? The sense of invincibility that comes with some SUVs? The desire some boomers have to feel the wind ruffle their grey hair as they pilot their convertibles? One fringe of the car industry will definitely turn to the leisure market, with some vehicles marketed the same way as ATVs or pleasure boats. The term “recreational vehicle” will gain even fuller meaning. But few of these vehicles are made for practical purposes. Snowmobiles may be useful when travelling across remote regions, but most are for recreational purposes only. Drivers of these vehicles seek adrenaline, an experience. You don’t go anywhere on pleasure boats, because they’re built for… pleasure. But some parts of the car industry will definitely align with the recreational vehicle market.

The advertising industry absolutely needs a better understanding of the future of car sales, even if, currently, car manufacturers and dealerships only represent some 10% of all advertising budgets in Quebec. And the questions relating to the future of driverless vehicles will impact more than car sales. What will happen with highway billboards if drivers no longer have to keep their eyes on the road? Will billboards be able to know who’s nearby and broadcast customized messages? Another industry that will need rehauling is automobile insurance. How will it make money once people no longer have to keep an eye on their blind spot? Meanwhile, brewers, distillers and makers of spirits are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the automated designated driver. When it comes to business, one brand’s loss is another brand’s gain.

This article was originally published in French in L’actualité magazine.

Image from newyorker.com