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It’s been roughly 100 years since the automobile began to permeate the lives of everyday people. What began as a novelty for the well-heeled became a mainstream phenomenon, thanks to Henry Ford’s innovation in mass production coupled with the economic prosperity of the Roaring Twenties. Cars changed where and how we lived, played, and worked.

Incremental innovation in the auto industry means that cars are now extraordinarily faster, more efficient, safer, and technologically advanced, but problems like traffic, accidents, and the inherent stress of long-distance driving still remain. As a result, a revolution as impactful as the introduction of the automobile itself is on the horizon: fully autonomous vehicles.

While there are challenges surrounding mass adoption of autonomous vehicles (a 2017 survey conducted by Mazda via Ipsos Mori found that 71 percent of drivers still want to drive their own cars), self-driving cars are the next frontier of personalization.

Adoption may happen faster than we think

A handful of manufacturers already implement semi-autonomous technology and self-driving features in luxury cars from BMW, Infiniti, Volvo, Audi, and others. Tesla’s Autopilot feature exceeds the level of automation that is currently legal, and drivers can extend it with a simple software update. Tesla CEO and founder Elon Musk estimates that in about 10 years it will be “unusual for cars to be built that are not fully autonomous.”

Big players in the auto industry have already made major investments. Apple recently patented an autonomous navigation system, while companies like Lyft and Qualcomm were recently granted permits in California to test autonomous vehicles, and Alphabet’s Waymo is getting dangerously close to offering a driverless ride-hailing service.

At its most basic level, autonomous driving involves active collision avoidance technology, such as automatic braking and lane-keeping assist. At a slightly more advanced level, the current crop of semi-autonomous vehicles will steer, maintain speeds, and brake only under specific conditions. Beyond that, we are looking at cars that can safely travel autonomously over long distances, perhaps with the only input being the “driver” entering a destination. And if Uber and Lyft — not to mention the entire truck shipping industry — have anything to say about it, they’ll operate with no driver at all.

Introducing the fourth screen

As marketers, we like to label the screens on which our audiences consume advertising. If the modern view is that the mobile phone is the first screen, the TV is the second screen, and tablets and computers are the third screens, you can bet that the vehicle will become the fourth.

Given the setting, the idea of the “driver” will be limited, if not completely eliminated. Everyone will now be a passenger and spectator, and the layout of the car will accommodate them with spacious seating in which lounging is more important than attentiveness. If you think car infotainment screens are large now, they will be dwarfed in due time. Screens will rival home TVs in size, with full touch interactivity equal to any modern smartphone and high-speed internet access for apps, content streaming, games, and more. In addition, head-up displays (HUDs) will project visuals on the windows, providing an augmented reality-esque utility while traveling.

Reaching consumers in a familiar but new way

Passengers are already glued to their smartphones or rely on a tablet to keep the kids amused in the backseat. However, marketers are limited in how they can target people in motion. Aside from sponsored ads in apps like Waze, we’re still not maximizing targeting on mobile devices, and infotainment systems advertising is limited because ads are too distracting for an active driver.

With GPS integration and access to onboard data in the autonomous vehicle, immersive infotainment screens will know a consumer’s location, destination, and driving patterns, allowing for more targeted advertising that is useful to the consumer. In addition, there’s a good chance that onboard displays will sync to personal devices, creating a larger device ecosystem to reach passengers.

Hypertargeting in motion

Advertising on the fourth screen has incredible potential. While research is still limited, Forrester found that up to 71 percent of surveyed consumers prefer content and advertisements that are personalized and relevant. With ample location and destination data, along with some predictive AI, why not play a pre-roll ad on Hulu for a restaurant three miles away? Or serve up a recipe video and coupons for ingredients on the way to the grocery store? How about some hotel deals as the driver heads toward a city center late at night?

Autonomous vehicles could also present a massive opportunity for brick and mortar retailers struggling in the fight against online retailers. There could be a high convenience factor in receiving a great local deal, buying with one click, and getting a ride to your purchase, which is conveniently dropped into your trunk by the retailer’s concierge service.

Driving to the horizon

While exciting, this innovation and opportunity won’t come all at once. But when the future of the automobile arrives, it will present us with a completely new audience and new behavior to tap into. As a petrol-head and driving enthusiast, I’m simultaneously excited to embrace our autonomous overlords and their traffic-abolishing promise, while also nervous about how I’ll get my analog speed fix.

Hopefully, there will still be a place for automotive Luddites like me, and the autonomous car will take me there.

Rob Kurfehs is the group creative director at Organic, an interaction agency.

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