Car of the Future Meets Ads of the Present

The end of the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show means it’s time to take a step back and gain some perspective on what happened in Vegas. There was a lot of hype-slash-interest this year in self-driving cars, which are getting beyond Google’s longstanding project, but are still a long way away from showroom floors. But another aspect of the evolution of the car — also discussed last week — is already here, and on the verge of going mainstream: in-car infotainment systems using 4G data connections to turn vehicles into the next interactive “smart” devices. These systems will proliferate steadily into more makes and models, and the evolution of smart cars stands to create interesting new opportunities for media companies and marketers alike.

Smartphones as Competition… and Complements

To succeed, makers of in-car interactive services must realize that they’re not the first smart devices most consumers will have in their vehicles. Smartphones got there first. And just as efforts to make TVs smarter must confront the panoply of smart devices already surrounding people in their living rooms, in-car systems (and particularly ones that require new data subscriptions) need to differentiate themselves — provide some reason why someone should use them rather than their Android or iPhone to connect on the go. Emphasizing ease of use, applications and services finely tuned to the car environment, or tight integration with other in-car systems to make for a seamless experience all could help make the case.

While smartphones are competitors to connected cars, they’re also going to be complementary. As with so many other media, a driver’s smartphone constitutes a great portable receiving end for anything someone might want to take with them when they leave their vehicle: reservation confirmations, coupons, or receipts will be delivered by email, text, or app.

The Screen May Not Be the Thing

Much attention on connected cars focuses on the increasingly high-resolution in-dash screen. To my mind, the more interesting opportunities will leverage audio as a user interface, rather than visuals. Voice offers a safer user interface for someone driving than something that requires taking hands off the wheel or eyes off the road. Pandora, Spotify, and other digital audio companies have already established a beachhead in connected cars, and I predict that the first real connected-car-oriented interactive ads will be audio, maybe with small companion visuals onscreen. Ads you can talk to are still pretty novel; however, the technology exists. For example, Nuance’s voice-enabled ad platform has been available for smartphones for a while.

At CES, GM’s OnStar demoed a new feature called AtYourService that enables their live agents to help make hotel reservations — and promote coupons and deals related to driving directions. Virtual assistants (as opposed to human ones) also continue to improve and I expect they will be a key connected car feature. I hope someone names one of them “KITT.”

Sizing Up the Marketer Opportunity

Marketers considering smart cars will need to keep a few things in mind.

First, for better or worse, the in-vehicle world is going to be a highly fragmented one, because auto makers have every reason to want to offer highly tailored, differentiated services. It will likely be easier to reach a mass audience working with the media companies that will work within these connected auto environments, than to go direct.

Second, any marketer that buys radio could potentially benefit from the more tailored reach and two-way connection that a smart car will deliver. Retailers with lots of locations and quick-service restaurants will be at the front of the queue, but other categories will follow quickly.

Third, to state the obvious, people replace their cars far less frequently than their phones. As a result, as smart cars hit the road, they’ll be around a long time. Maybe their interactive systems will be modular and upgradeable, but it’s much more likely that media and marketers will need to be able to serve a wide array of different vintages of systems. This is actually another justification for an audio-centric approach: no matter what happens with displays, touch, gestures, etc., voice can work today and will not change much in 10 years.

Self-Driving Cars Are Rolling Living Rooms

I’ve focused on smart cars, rather than self-driving cars, but the latter may be what really unlocks the former. Once everyone in the car is a passenger, and doesn’t have to pay attention to the complex act of driving, the entire windshield could be a screen, and the interactive possibilities become almost infinite. That’s a long way off, but mile by mile, that seems to be where the turn-by-turn directions are leading us.

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