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Autonomous vehicles won’t have drivers but may be driven by ads

March 28, 2018

Autonomous vehicles face well known challenges related to safety, technological, and legal issues, as I have previously reported. David Roberts at Vox expresses another concern. He envisions a dystopia of self-driving cars trying to traverse jam-packed urban streets while their occupants are forced to watch nonstop in-vehicle advertising to “pay” for their rides.

He takes as his starting point a startup called Vugo, “…which has contracts with about 3,500 Uber and Lyft drivers in New York City to install video screens in their vehicles. The screens will display video advertising and, at least initially, cannot be turned off or completely muted.”

In essence, he predicts, the network of autonomous cars of the future will become what the Internet is today, with service providers making money “…only insofar as they hold user attention, so they are in an endless, recursive, dog-eat-dog struggle for it.”

He indeed contends that the world is evolving toward transportation as a service (TaaS), not a commodity, for which people buy miles, not cars. New entrants into the field will cut costs to the bone to fuel rapid growth, he says, ultimately offering up-front charges of $0, with profits—if any—coming from in-vehicle advertising.

“It would be nice to think that people wouldn’t put up with it, that they would buy a subscription or pay an extra fee for an ad-free transportation service (TaaAFS),” he writes. “But that isn’t what history seems to show,” he continues, citing consumer behavior with regard to airlines, media, and “member club cards” at retail stores.

Perhaps you are willing to watch ads in exchange for a “free” ride. That’s part of the problem, and it has externalities. TaaS providers will need to maximize vehicle miles traveled VMT by diverting into their cars people who otherwise might walk, ride a bicycle, or take public transportation.

“Hitching ad revenue to VMT would put the industry squarely in opposition to other, noncar modes of transit and make it an enemy of good urban planning,” Roberts writes.

“It used to be boasted of every new innovation that it would make some old legacy system ‘more like the Internet,’” he concludes. “That boast carries a somewhat more ominous tone these days. Maybe there are some features of the Internet we don’t want to export.”

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