Fine Dining in a Driverless Future

What activity among all others would people prefer to do in an autonomous car?

If you guessed “eat or drink,” you would be right. At least, that’s according to a recent report published by American research concern Adobe Analytics. The company surveyed 1,040 potential autonomous car passengers, grilling them about their attitudes and hopes for self-driving vehicles. When asked what their one preferred activity inside the vehicle would be, the overwhelming winner among a clutch of categories was dining and drinking. Nearly 50% of those surveyed chose this as their pick, beating out rivals such as watching video, working, and even sleeping.

The Adobe Analytics report indicates that productivity will be quite some distance down the priority list – barely over one-third of the survey’s respondents favored working as their top activity of choice. This stands to reason; for many people in traditional office jobs, every workday they ride to and from eight or so hours of employment. A commute provides an opportunity for a break, no matter how brief. It’s little wonder that many don’t want to fill that precious time with even more work.

The victory of food and beverage consumption came as no surprise to Dan McCann, CEO of next generation drive-thru restaurant solutions provider 5thru. “We live a progressively more frantic lifestyle. Eating is one of those activities that requires us to slow down in a world where time is at a premium. Commuting is a perfect way to combine the two activities where we are the least economically productive,” he said.

Michael Schaefer, global lead in the food and beverage practice of consultancy Euromonitor International, said: “I think eating is one of the popular responses because that’s always been a popular thing for people to do on transport – eating, drinking, playing games, getting work done. Eating could be more popular in private self-driving cars simply because it’s private. No one’s going to eat a full meal on the subway or the bus.”

The main activity of 5thru is developing systems that read license plates of cars visiting drive-thru restaurants. For vehicles that are in these systems, the software can call up data such as ordering history and payment card information, helping to streamline the often cumbersome ordering, fulfillment and payment processes. An automaker wishing to take advantage of the apparently robust demand for in-car dining would do well to pay attention to developments in this kind of technology. Getting involved in it, either by cooperating with a company active in the space or by developing clever forms of support for these systems, could open a new revenue stream.

It’s interesting that in the Adobe Analytics survey, other leisure choices such as watching video, listening to audio content or taking a nice snooze while your autonomous car whisks you to your destination, drew some of the least popular responses in the survey. In fact, watching video was dead last, with only 24% of people selecting that activity. That’s less than half the percentage of future passengers most eager to eat and drink.

Carmakers and infotainment solutions providers should consider this. A lot of capital and research/development capability has been poured into building better and more feature-packed infotainment systems. These can also be very resource-intensive to integrate into a modern car. If passengers aren’t especially eager to watch a movie or TV show while on the road, perhaps it isn’t worth going the extra mile to develop slick video solutions to one-up a rival manufacturer or systems designer?

So, we could be looking at a future full of vehicle passengers happily chomping away as their vehicles self-drive down the road. This presents opportunities for automakers and solutions providers to collaborate with a variety of food service businesses: drive-thru restaurants, sure, but also corners of that industry which have never been much associated with the car.

Schaefer muses that the hunger to eat in an autonomous vehicle: “Could create opportunities for packaged food players. Could a self-driving car have a small microwave? Cooking facilities?” He did not mention car manufacturers but it could be clever of them to start thinking about how they could get a piece of this segment too, if food and drink consumption becomes as popular as the Adobe Analytics survey suggests.

Talk of microwaves and the like leads to an intriguing thought exercise – will it be necessary for carmakers to dramatically modify the concept of a vehicle’s interior to accommodate the expressed desire for in-car dining? There has already been much speculation as to how interior design might change once automobiles become passenger-only.

McCann believes that a transformation is necessary and inevitable: “If the average commute is 45 minutes per day each way, you are essentially creating a new living space which, to date, has not existed in any useful way. This is a great opportunity for innovators.  Opening up the in-vehicle ecosystem to allow innovators to take advantage of the new platform is essential.”

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