The trade press has shared the best (and some of the worst) from the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show over the past few weeks, and it is clear that bundle of technologies introduced or promoted at the show have the potential to impact the media industries, both in the manner in which content is produced and distributed and the manner in which consumers use the media. The most cited developments include 4K TV, wireless connections and charging, and over-the-top television.
But those weren't the technologies that grabbed the biggest headlines and made the biggest splash. The most crowded booths, which earned the biggest headlines, were for the auto manufacturers that were showing off various electronic technologies that promise to revolutionize automobiles. The show had a wide range of technologies on display from relatively simple systems that help you avoid accidents and help you park your car to completely autonomous vehicles. For example, Audi was proudly displaying a specially-equipped A7 concept model that drove itself from San Francisco to Las Vegas for the show.
In addition to attracting media attention, these technologies have the potential to revolutionize the media industry. Even though widespread diffusion of self-driving cars won't happen for at least five years, our industry has to start preparing now if we want to be ready for these impacts, both positive and negative.
Let's start with the bad news for the media: These driverless cars are likely to lead to a big drop in automobile accidents, which is a very good thing. There will be less drunk driving, fewer people falling asleep at the wheel and potential elimination of distracted driving in all its forms, as computer are not prone to distraction. From a public safety perspective, it's almost a no-lose situation (although someone is likely to find a way to turn such a boon into a problem).
From the media perspective, there is definitely potential for a significant, negative economic impact. Any massive reduction in the number of automobile accidents will immediately affect a few huge categories of advertisers. Insurance companies may be impacted the most because they spend so much on television and radio advertising, typically making up at least three of the top-ten advertisers for different media. Other categories that will be impacted include personal injury attorneys (a staple of daytime, local television) and auto body shops. With decreased revenue (and an increasing competition from new advertising media) traditional media will have to work to replace a great deal of lost advertising revenue.
This "bad news" (for the media) is balanced by some very good news: The amount of time people have available to consume media will expand to fill commuting time, which, for most people, ranges from 10 minutes per day to well over an hour a day. The same network technology that will enable the automobile to be autonomous will also deliver virtually any type of media content. Commuting time then becomes discretionary time for consumers to work, communicate or relax. Regardless of the primary use of this time, the result is certain to include a significant, aggregate increase in the amount of time spent online, as well as the amount of time watching television, listening to radio, visiting web sites and using social media.
Autonomous vehicles could impact other media-related industries as well. Consider the impact on outdoor advertising when no one in the car is watching the road. Consider the impact on the signage industry in general, as location signs become less important in attracting customers.
The obvious question is how quickly self-driving cars will be adopted by enough people to impact the marketplace. There may be strong resistance from those who want to stay in control of their cars, as well as those who fear too much automation in our lives. But my guess is that once a person has experienced the luxury of a personal chauffeur (even if it is an electronic one), adoption of autonomous automobiles will race ahead.
In short, the individual decision point may come down to whether a person prefers to be in complete control of a vehicle (which will be quite inferior to letting the vehicle control itself) or whether a person wants to be a passenger, using that valuable time for leisure, interaction or more work. In either case, the secondary impacts upon the media from self-driving cars will be significant and media managers will need to monitor advances in autonomous automobiles to ensure that they are prepared for the impacts of this technology upon the media.
Dr. August E. Grant is the J. Rion McKissick Professor of Journalism at the University of South Carolina and the Chief Research Officer of 1World Online , a digital engagement, research, and analytics product company for media firms and brands.