I Was in a #SelfDrivingUber And This Is What Happened

Our ride!

Will taking away our need to drive create space to breathe, or just another marketing moment?

by Maggie Cadigan

A few weeks back, a coworker and I were in Phoenix for a kick-off meeting. Being the fun, dedicated folks we are, we arrived a night early to have dinner with one of our favorite clients (who also happens to be one of our favorite people). After we shared some craft beers, beer-cheese pretzel fondue and many laughs, as a part of my Brand Director (but mostly just my daily Type A life) duties, I hopped on the Uber app to grab us a ride back to the hotel.

What happened next was something I didn’t even know was possible and was a little nerve-wracking, quite frankly.

Our first self-driving Uber!

I broke the news to the table with a very Maggie, “Shut the front door!! We’re being Punk’d.” followed by everyone trying to jump up from the table without paying for the meal to go meet a self-driving Uber that was still 3 minutes away.

When our Uber arrived, it didn’t look like any of the other Ubers I had ever taken! It was a Volvo SUV with some enhancements that clearly made it special…

  1. It was skinned in an Uber-branded sticker;
  2. It had a propellor-type thing on the roof like the super-aggressive radar device on my dad’s boat;
  3. Inside, there was a giant iPad with some crazy intricate map; and,
  4. There were two engineers who greeted us. At first, the fact that other people were “driving” our Self-Driving Uber was annoying, but knowing how many questions we had about everything (and how nervous I felt about the whole idea!), we were glad to have them as our guides.

They first asked if we felt comfortable being driven in a self-driving car, or if we wanted them to request a “normal” Uber for us. Once we agreed to this crazy adventure, we realized we weren’t being Punk’d at all — we were, in fact, about to be one of the first groups of people to be driven by a #SelfDrivingUber #IRL… #Woah.

How very 20th century. Photo by Alexander Redl on Unsplash

We asked all types of questions. Turns out…

— Phoenix and Pittsburgh are the only two legal markets thus far where Uber is testing out this concept.

— There are only certain zones in the city where the car is allowed to be put into “self-driving mode,” in our case about 70% of our ride, which still felt like a lot!

— The car really does know the speed limits, speeds of and distances to the cars around it. It can read traffic lights, it had our trip mapped like a go-kart race track, and it shared this via the iPad.

— Yes, you can also share your experience on social…and what would a new experience be without that these days, right?

That’s us!

Generally speaking, the drive didn’t feel any different than a normal Uber. It wasn’t jerky or abrupt. All of the car controls were still through the normal human touch (radio, temperature, etc.). It felt pretty safe, but I bet we wouldn’t have felt like this if we lost our engineer friends in the front seats.

And according to the engineers, this technology will be mainstream in the next 5–6 years, though Uber is doing everything it can to expedite this process.

To me, that’s really, really soon.

What’s interesting is thinking about what happens when the act of “driving” becomes just another place and time to consume content.

What will we do with this time? And what will marketers do with it?

Currently, Americans spend 293 hours a year driving on average. In these 293 hours, drivers are exposed to radio ads (terrestial and streaming), plus OOH (out-of-home), and a few other forms, like podcast advertising. Generally, this daily moment of our lives has been out of reach for other ad forms. But through the self-driving car, Uber (and Google) could create some very interesting new marketing opportunities.

First, self-driving cars could free us up to consume more media and therefore, more ads. Just like riding a train or bus.

More free time, every day. What should we do with it? We could be more productive, or we could read news, watch videos, scroll through social, or buy products, since we are now always connected (Wifi hotspots, after all, are a thing in cars now).

Second, self-driving cars could be “monetized.”

It’s a captive audience. “Taxi TVs,” like the ones that proliferated in NYC in the early 2000s, recognized this to monetize the driving experience. If we have large-scale adoption of self-driving cars, with integrated screens, wifi and location-based targeting, is it only a matter of time before car companies, media companies and ad networks get together to offer you an ad-supported driving experience?

Third, who’s in control?

We talk a lot about Modern Media Culture and the idea that control has shifted from media companies and advertisers to viewers (ad blocking, ad skipping and ad free environments help). There’s a case to be made that self-driving cars could challenge this notion, providing exclusive content (e.g. Netflix, with a new movie only for Toyotas). Car companies sell cars, but really, they sell loans. Maybe the next thing they sell is in-car experiences. And this will require a whole rethink of what an ad even is. A five-second (or even two-second) pre-roll feels pretty flat in comparison.

All in all, self-driving cars are happening whether we like it or not. Though we are years from a self-driving world, if we don’t start innovating now, we might really get Punk’d.

It’s time to pay attention.

Maggie Cadigan is a Brand Director at Mistress.