Self-driving cars were once thought of as a far-off, and maybe even impossible, concept, but they’re here now. At the end of November, General Motors announced its plan to launch a fleet of driverless cars — without backup drivers — across several major U.S. cities, beginning in 2019. In doing so, the auto industry signified that it’s prepared to lead a dramatic shift in how both humans and commercial goods move from place to place.

Of course, powering this initiative is data — and likely exabytes of it. Driverless vehicles depend on data for everything from communicating their position on the road, to calculating speed and braking distances, to recognizing traffic signals and upcoming hazards in their path.

While the idea of AVs whisking us away to our destinations with little to no effort does sound appealing on its own, an even greater prospect comes when you consider how such information will impact the travel experience itself. The data generated from these vehicles is highly personal — from radio presets and audiobook preferences to commuting schedules and favorite destinations. With this data, automakers and other vendors can learn a great deal about a vehicle’s owner and occupants by analyzing their travel history in real time.

When you consider the sheer volume of user preferences, demographic information, and trip analysis required for a driverless vehicle to operate, the conversation evokes several different questions:

  • How will automakers use this personal data to improve the travel experience for drivers and their passengers?
  • How might third-party vendors activate the same data to create new applications for their products and services?
  • What other areas of travel could we improve by leveraging this type of user data?

We’re about to face a convergence of personalization and automation, and once this happens, it will dramatically affect the travel experience from several different perspectives.

Goodbye steering wheel, hello Netflix?

When your vehicle drives you around, how do you keep yourself entertained? Self-driving cars aren’t susceptible to distraction like their human co-pilots. They’re constantly aware, attentive in their monitoring of what’s around them, and omnipresent. This opens up countless hours for entertainment that were previously dedicated to maintaining focus on the road — and with it, nearly limitless personalization options once we’re no longer physically required to drive our vehicles.

Traveling becomes more of an experience and less of a task because your vehicle would help deliver the atmosphere you desire. Headed to your favorite restaurant on your anniversary? Perhaps your car could book a reservation and alert the restaurant when you’ve arrived. Or, on your daily commute, your vehicle could take an alternate route to avoid delays and simultaneously read you your morning emails while en route.

Integrated industries under one roof

When no driver is required, automakers have the opportunity to take the smart technology integration introduced in connected cars a step further. By partnering with companies outside the traditional automotive industry — like online retailers and social media networks — these vendors can tap into the same rich data to allow passengers to engage in online shopping, streaming, and browsing during their trip. Watching the latest episodes of your favorite TV shows during a long road trip could finally be possible since your car doesn’t require your attention to transport you.

While the data collected from autonomous vehicles is ideal for a user’s personalization, automakers could benefit greatly from utilizing the same data. For example, a truly integrated auto manufacturer could use machine learning to analyze trip data from the variety of sensors on board to track predictive maintenance and warranty repair schedules. This is especially useful when it comes to determining responsibility in the event of a collision or breakdown, which could be valuable to insurance providers as well.

Planes, trains, and ridesharing?

Once perfected, personalization of the travel experience doesn’t have to stop with driverless cars. It could also extend into other modes of transportation, like air and rail travel. While the options may not be as limitless in group-based modes of transportation, the same principles apply. Airline and rail operators could collect data from a passenger’s purchase history to determine if they prefer a window seat or an aisle, identify their favorite beverage and snack options, and their propensity to select an early boarding ticket option.

In the case of General Motors, the ultimate objective of its driverless car rollout plan is to create a self-driving rideshare fleet to compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft. Incorporating even a handful of the personalization techniques into ridesharing could mean the ability to call or rent a vehicle that’s able to load your favorite shows, radio stations, preferred fueling locations, and social media feeds on demand as soon as you step inside.

Personalization is the future

Technology has advanced to the point where vendors are now able to help personalize our driving experiences with custom radio packages, social media integration, and other content while we travel. Simultaneously, auto manufacturers are moving us closer to autonomous vehicles, where a driver is no longer needed as a pilot.

The beauty of this convergence is that the more these vehicles travel, the more they learn. So after just a short period of regular use, owners could find themselves watching their favorite movies while traveling to their preferred beach destination, which already has an extra-large parking space reserved for them upon arrival. All courtesy of their driverless car.

While some of us are just now getting used to the idea of voice assistants and social media integration in our cars, the reality is, things are about to get much more personal.

Stefan Krauss is global general manager of discrete manufacturing industries at SAP.