Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Do Self-Driving Cars Pick Their Own Gas Stations?

I had a delightful and well-lubricated dinner this week with Scott Brinker of @chiefmartec fame, ostensibly to discuss the next edition of the MarTech Conference but mostly just to chat about the industry and what comes next.

Scott wasn’t too impressed by my notion of an advertising-supported toaster (see my last blog post), even though I pointed out you could segment the messages based on the type of bread the person was eating. On the other hand, I was very intrigued by his notion of marketing through services such as alerting a driver when they need gas and where to find the most suitable gas station.

Where that example got interesting was when we added self-driving cars to the mix: why couldn’t the car take itself out for gas when the driver isn’t using it, or indeed, take itself on other chores like state inspections, oil changes, and scheduled maintenance? And if it does that, how will it pick the supplier?   Sure, the owner could specify in advance, but won’t at least some owners want the car to find the best price on gasoline or respond to special offers such as coupons?

If you do give the car some discretion, how do you know it won’t make choices based on its own preferences?  Perhaps it will favor the gas station that wipes its windshield or gives it a free tire rotation, which you have to suspect feels mighty good to an auto. Indeed, how do you know your car isn't taking Uber jobs on the side, or drag racing with its car friends from the other side of town who you never really liked?  Could the manufacturer have some involvement in this, pocketing that Uber revenue or biasing those purchase decisions in return for payment from suppliers? More generally, when devices become autonomous, do marketers still address their owners or are there ways to sell to things themselves? 

There’s at least a bad science fiction story in all this (“Do self-driving cars pick their own gas stations?” with apologies to Philip K. Dick)., which I naturally proposed to Scott as a short video for the next MarTech conference.  He didn't exactly leap at the chance.

But there are also more serious issues and opportunities to consider. Perhaps interruptive marketing really will be replaced by embedded services and subscriptions which will make product selection and purchase timing decisions without the owners being involved. In some ways, it already happens: think about the choices that a doctor makes when selecting your treatments or building contractor makes when constructing your house. We already know there is plenty of trade advertising to affect those choices. As more decisions get delegated to automated agents, this may be an area we can learn from. But of course, it won’t be exactly the same, so there will be plenty of new approaches to pioneer as well.

This is definitely the kind of discussion to have over drinks. I can’t go into details but rest assured that Scott’s plans for the next MarTech conference do take this into account.

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