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Captive Audience: How We’ll Be the Ones Who Pay for Autonomous Mobility

When your car drives itself, you’re not just a passenger—you’re an audience for advertising.

Nelson IresonWriterManufacturerPhotographer

Our autonomous driving future is coming—with a hefty bill to pay. It's one many corporations like Tesla, Google, General Motors, Apple, and more are already paying down by the billions of dollars each year. But there are many billions more left to pay, and these corporations are not doing all of this research and building all of this infrastructure as passion projects for the good of humanity, whatever their public relations departments may say.

Self-Driving Cars: The Haves

These companies expect—even, by the mores of our day, deserve—to be rewarded many times over for their investments. Those rewards will come in part from licensing the software that powers self-driving cars, both to owners and to corporate customers. But an even larger, longer-tailed source of revenue in self-driving cars comes from having constructed the single most powerful advertising platform ever devised: One that not only commands your full attention for, potentially, hours at a stretch, but which can also deliver you to the point-of-sale of the object of your newly kindled retail desire at the tap of a holographic ad.

Don't take my word for it. When asked about "monetizing the installed base" of software Tesla has amassed through its vehicles during the company's Q2 2020 quarterly call, Tesla boss Elon Musk answered:

"Right now, by far, FSD is just overwhelmingly the most important thing. I think [it's] the upgrading of the fleet to Full Self-Driving, especially with an over-the-air software update. I mean, we go down as the biggest asset-value increase in history as a step change. Maybe there's something bigger, but it seems it would be one of the biggest—I can't think of anything bigger.

"So overnight, 1 million—depending on exactly on when it happens and when it's allowed in various regulatory jurisdictions—you have like at least a few million cars, suddenly becoming five-times more valuable, or something like that. It's only five-times higher utility. They go from like 12 hours a week of utility, something like that. Or it doesn't mean hours are used to 60, something like that.

"So, everything else is pretty small by comparison. Now when things do become Full Self-Driving, so what are we going to do in the car? Well, I guess we're probably going to want to do productivity and entertainment of some kind, or maybe play games and do work. That's in the future. We're already putting some games and stuff on the car, just for fun."

If you're paying attention there, you'll see hints of the plan beyond merely selling FSD itself; you might also find Musk's lack of definition and vision around what we're going to be doing in the car that will "monetize the installed user base" a bit out of character.

I believe he knows precisely what people will be doing in his cars, and a great deal of it will be watching ads.

Don't believe me? If you're of the right age, you might remember social media's early days, back before ads were targeted at you based on your browsing history, and every company—and your boss—had an account. They were wild, heady, carefree days. That's how people will remember Teslas from the "good old days" back before FSD.

In a lot of ways, Tesla's cars—any self-driving cars, really—are not just cars. They're set-top boxes. They're a gateway into your personal time. And if you think a corporation with all of that airtime isn't going to try to sell at least some of it, well, you're living in a different America than I am.

Self-Driving Cars: The Have-Lesses

So far, we've only seen what those who can afford to buy their own self-driving car will face. For many urban dwellers today—and presumably even more in the future—public transport is the daily option, even if those people do own a car. Autonomous electric cars are unquestionably coming for your public-transit dollars, as previewed by the mini-city-bus design of Cruise's Origin.

If you don't know or recall, the Origin is the first vehicle announced by Cruise, a child company of General Motors with investment from Honda. It's designed for a ridesharing service—one more or less just like the one your city likely administers right now, using buses, but in this case with much smaller buses, (presumably) no fixed bus stops, and no human drivers. There are also no wall-to-wall display screens in the Origin (just a single small information display at each end of the cabin), but remember, we're still in the early stages—we haven't yet begun to pay the bill in full.

"Ridesharing" does sound much more futuristic than "tiny buses", or worse, "cab shared with a stranger," especially when you have a corporation hawking the service rather than a municipal government. Maybe it will be more romantic, a new era of sleek, futuristic streetcars—trolleys, even—rather than an automated swarm of ant-buses plastered inside and out with blinking technicolor ads. It's hard to see now, but one day we may look back fondly at the comparative restraint most of our cities' bus lines have shown with their only occasionally gratuitous advertising.

Self-Driving Cars: Equality Through Tracking

Whether you're driving your subscription self-driving car (no matter if it's the car or just the software that's subscription-based) or paying for your monthly membership to a bus-like ridesharing service, your identity will come along for the ride. That's all the better to tailor the ads displayed on the wall as you grab a handrail, or that play on the main viewscreen in your private car before the morning news stream.

Especially in the in-between case of ridesharing services such as Car2Go (which give you access to a pool of cars that are yours to use, but only while you're actively paying), the issue of identity is almost inextricable from the service itself: The company needs to know who is driving its cars at any given moment so it knows who's responsible for any damage, at the very least—and there are many other valid reasons for such a business to closely tie your identity to your vehicle use.

Yes, the services could pride themselves on user privacy and identity protection, but today's market hasn't shown much correlation between privacy, or data integrity, and user base. If you think otherwise, go see how difficult it is to have a digital presence without using services known to have improperly obtained, accessed, sold, or retained sensitive user data. The list gets far shorter still if you include those companies without nefarious intent that nonetheless have exposed sensitive user data, or which have quantifiably indecipherable privacy policies.

Remember, too, that self-driving cars won't operate in a vacuum, even if Musk sends one to Mars. All those apps and cookies tracking your movement, your preferences, even listening to your conversations on your phone? They're along for the ride, too, and may even be talking to the self-driving car, letting it know things like your fondness for that barbecue joint just past the next intersection.

So, what's the takeaway from all of this? While we probably won't be able to avoid the barrage of even-more-targeted and privacy-compromising ads and services that will accompany self-driving cars, we will most likely do as we've done with all of the technology that has arrived on our doorsteps in the past two decades: quickly incorporate it into our daily lives, accepting the trade-offs (whether gladly or out of necessity) that come along for the ride. This is just the preview.