Opinion

What happens to roadside billboards when we’re all in self-driving cars?

Out of home advertising is one of the fastest growing market sectors, but when our attention is no longer focused wholly on the road, will roadside OOH continue to deliver? Simon Lawson says "yes, more than ever".

If you believe the predictions, transportation is about to undergo the biggest revolution since the invention of the modern internal combustion engine in 1876.simon lawson

According to Stanford University lecturer, Tony Seba, four technologies are about to change everything: solar power, battery storage, electric vehicles and self-driving cars.

What could the future look like?

Car ownership will be rare. Personal transport needs will instead be met by self-driving car options including Tesla’s newly proposed peer-to-peer car sharing platform, taxi companies like Uber and even the potential of fleets operated by manufacturers such as Ford and General Motors.

Physically, we’re going to move from the front seat to the back seat. That shift is important, it’ll mean less of our attention will be focused on the road ahead.

What’s this got to do with media?  Well, what happens to roadside billboards when we’re all getting around in the back seat of self-driving cars?

Let’s back up for a moment and set some context.

According to the Standard Media Index, Australian media agencies booked some $801m of out-of-home media in the financial year ending June 2016. $271m, or 36%, of the total, was for posters and billboards – the type we typically drive past in our cars.  It’s a big business and it’s getting bigger, with agency bookings growing 14.2% year on year.Blank billboard against blue sky, put your own text here

Australia’s listed out-of-home media companies are stock market darlings at the moment, trading at steep price earnings multiples well above the Australian share market’s historical averages.  Put simply, the market is factoring in significant and ongoing growth in earnings.

An important part of the industry’s growth story is the additional revenue opportunities that open up with the digitisation of large format roadside billboards.  Basically, a sign can generate more revenue once it’s been digitised because multiple advertisers have to pay to have their ads displayed on rotation.

That model is all well and good when the majority of the audience are drivers paying attention to what’s happening outside of the car, but how does it stack up when the audience is in the back of a self-driving car looking at their smartphones?

It strikes me that self-driving cars could actually be more of an opportunity for the out-of-home industry than a threat.

Consider that if the future of media is a marketing cloud delivering programmed sequences of personalised messages across a series of user ID-enabled devices, then a potentially fatal weakness of outdoor is its present inability to target by user.

Smartphones connected to self-driving cars will change all that.

One example that demonstrates the personalisation potential of out-of-home is Uber’s partnership with Spotify that allows passengers to listen to their own playlists whilst riding in an Uber.

Take this concept a few steps further and you can easily imagine screens in the back of self-driving cars that customise to passengers upon their entry into the vehicle. Beyond that, there is the potential for self-driving cars to signal digital large format roadside billboards to display highly relevant messages to passengers as they travel past.

Tesla's Model X

Tesla’s Model X

In today’s regulatory environment, the prospect of roadside signs serving personalised messages might seem farfetched, but this is largely due to the concerns of local council’s that moving digital screens might distract drivers and cause accidents. This objection is rendered moot when the drivers are no longer human.

With that said, it seems unlikely that self-driving cars will take over from human drivers completely and the concerns around distraction will remain: What then?

Augmented reality has the potential to completely transform the nature of roadside billboards.  What’s to say that roadside billboards will even need to physically exist in the future?

Jaguar’s Virtual Windscreen concept shows how augmented reality can enable motorists to view a display on their windscreen of virtual racing lines that change colour to indicate optimum braking positions, virtual cones placed along the road to train drivers, and a ‘ghost car’ visualisation that allows drivers to race virtual drivers on a real road. (It makes more sense if you watch the video.)

Using the Jaguar example as our inspiration, why couldn’t the future include self-driving cars fitted with augmented reality windows that provide for the display of customised advertisements on virtual roadside billboards that appear as part of the natural landscape outside the vehicle?

Whilst it’s not certain how long it will be before a self-driving car world becomes a reality, with continuing investment by companies like Google, Tesla, Uber and potentially even Apple, it’s approaching faster than many of us probably realise.

Tony Seba, our eminent Stanford University lecturer, estimates conventional transportation will have been rendered obsolete in 15 years’ time. In his words: “It’s going to be over by 2030; it has started already.”

Simon Lawson is group business director at PHD Melbourne

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