Next time you’re mired in gridlock, imagine taking your hands off the wheel, firing up a TV show or movie — and letting your car take over the stop-and-go tedium for you.
In the next few years, self-driving features and Internet connections in cars could make your driver’s seat feel more like the living-room couch.
Computers are autonomously piloting test automobiles by Google, and driverless features are making their way into cars by companies like Ford, Audi and Tesla.
It could revolutionize the auto market — but also provide huge new opportunities for entertainment companies, especially those that excel at making content available on-the-go.
How quickly entertainment companies can seize a new captive audience isn’t a question of technological advancement. It’s a matter of regulation.
“We’re not going to flip the switch. Very slowly over time, little bits and pieces of autonomous driving are going to be installed,” said Mark C. Boyadjis, senior analyst at researcher IHS Automotive. “But that opens up opportunities for entertainment companies…to get more eyeballs in the vehicle.”
The technology that allows a car to pilot itself has been road-tested for years — Google has developed a prototype that doesn’t even have a steering wheel, for example — and that progress is beginning to sneak into consumer vehicles. In October, Tesla rolled out a software update unlocking “Autopilot” elements that allow the company’s Model S to steer within a lane, change lanes with the tap of a turn signal and manage speed with traffic-aware cruise control.
“We’re still in the world of automated systems, not automated driving,” said Jennifer Kent, connected car analyst for Parks Associates.
She estimated such automated systems will become more commonplace over the next three to five years. The next five to 10 years will see greater autonomous driving. It requires a driver present in the front seat still in command of the wheel and brakes to take control in emergent situations at the computers’ prompting.
“After 10 years, you get into visionary, ‘Who knows?’ territory,” she said.
Kent said we may also be just as few years away from connectivity in cars that would support video streaming. She projected it would take three to five years for connected vehicles to have sufficient bandwidth to support streaming video, through 4G LTE modems in cars.
Consumer demand has already arrived — at least in some markets.
Parks found that among Internet-connected U.S. households, 55 percent of car owners who also use a smartphone want access to a Wi-Fi HotSpot in the next vehicle they purchase.
Ford, in its Trends report, found that 84 percent of people in India and 78 percent of people in China strongly agreed that they see themselves buying a self-driving car in the future. That proportion fell to 40 percent in the US, where drivers more often use cars as a device for recreation in addition to transportation.
Still, “that American ideal of open highways, pedal to the metal and wind in your hair is an elusive concept that many people will never enjoy,” said Sheryl Connelly, manager of global consumer trends at Ford Motor Co. “This is the place where autonomy lives.”
One Chinese digital media company is already strapping itself into the self-driving trend. Last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Chinese online media giant LeTV — often referred to as the “Netflix of China” — confirmed it is a main backer of secretive California electric car company Faraday Future.
Because autonomous features like cruise control aren’t new in vehicles, US laws already address the kinds of entertainment allowed in drivers’ seats: essentially, zilch. Only audio is OK.
“The question isn’t whether you can provide moving images in the car,” said Brad Stertz, whom Audi appointed as director of government affairs starting at next month. “The real issue is what will regulators allow, and what is the right thing to do.”
“Most people think we’re a few months away from being able to sit in the backseat and have a cup of coffee,” he said. But he added that just working with regulators will take years. Audi plans to commission a study with a major university to find out what people really do when a car is in autonomous mode. It also plans to work in several states to educate legislators about the technology.
But regulators and industry are working together toward progress, said IHS Automotive analyst Boyadjis. “It’s more a process of collaboration between government agencies and car companies than the automotive industry has ever seen,” he said.
And that bodes well for self-driving cars soon turning you from driver to viewer.