Will Content Kill the Driver Experience?

By Ross Douglas, Founder & CEO, Autonomy

Traditional Automakers are under attack. Consumers are buying less new cars, millennials are switching away from objects to experiences and China is gathering speed in making decent EVs.

But there is another threat to the auto industry that in my opinion is too often overlooked. The Americans are investing hundreds of billions of dollars into streaming content and to make it work, they are needing more and more eyeballs. The very same eyeballs automakers are hoping to attract to their own driving experience.

AT&T under CEO Randall Stephenson wants to completely reinvent the media ecosystem. They bought DirecTV for $67Billion in 2015 and Time Warner for $104 Billion in 2018 making AT&T the most heavily indebted non-financial company in American history.  They hope to make a return on their investment by feeding customers proprietary content through their networks.

The idea behind their master plan is that we are all emotionally connected to our phones and AT&T will take advantage of this through it’s “ability to now place content with that connectivity is another way to keep it emotionally relevant”, according to John Stankey the 34-year-old in charge of their content strategy. AT&T have 170 million “distribution points” which they can push content through, and so access to the consumer is not the challenge – capturing the consumer’s time is.

AT&T are not the only ones betting on content.

Netflix invested $12 billion in content in 2018 and plan to up it to $15 billion this year in the hope of growing their streaming base up from 140 million.

Amazon Prime has over 100 million subscribers in the US and content streaming is a core business strategy for Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos who stated, “when we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes”

Plus, more competition is coming.  Comcast has launched their five dollar per month streaming service called Infinity Flex aimed primarily at its 31 million cable and broadband customers.

Disney will launch its Disney+ streaming service at the end of this year and Apple, with their 1.4 Billion devices worldwide, will launch their streaming service later this year.

What this means is that there is going to be an endless amount of content to consume through streaming services at a low fixed price.

Increasing connectivity quickly translates to increased screen time. Market-research group Nielsen, claims American adults spend more than eleven hours per day watching, reading, listening to or simply interacting with media. That’s up from nine hours, 32 minutes just four years ago.

In a new book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, the social psychologist Adam Alter warns that many of us are addicted to screen time.

“We are engineered in such a way that as long as an experience hits the right buttons, our brains will release the neurotransmitter dopamine. We’ll get a flood of dopamine that makes us feel wonderful in the short term, though in the long term you build a tolerance and want more.”

If the future of the car is connected and autonomous, I guarantee that this will translate to yet more screen time.  The average American commute time is 26.9 minutes each way according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey.  That is an extra hour per day up for grabs for the big American tech and content companies.

The battle will be between the auto-makers and the content-makers for this extra hour per day. Automakers are hoping that commuters will still get pleasure from driving as with the famous BMW tagline; Sheer driving pleasure. They are wanting to build cars that are a pleasure to drive and can be switched across to autonomous mode at the driver’s will. Tech companies want more opportunities to interact with consumers through a screen and Google’s entry into Autonomous Vehicles with Waymo probably has that objective in mind.

While the future of AVs is unsure, what we do know is that people are looking at their screens more and more every day and this may well have a larger impact on tomorrow’s mobility than most have imagined. If we are increasingly addicted to screen time, we might be very content moving around in cheap Autonomous buggies, tapping, swiping and watching as we move.