Weekly brief: Cars Will Soon Become Billboards on Wheels

Andrew Tolve assesses the likelihood of drivers losing their rear windows to the ad men.

Remember the early days of the internet when pundits swore that online platforms would never be overrun with ads? Users wouldn’t tolerate it, the thinking went, the way they did on traditional TV. The reasoning behind this argument I can’t even recall. All I know is that I was told it over and over again and advertisers generally seemed to agree – until they didn’t anymore and all of a sudden everything online was swarming with embedded ads and pop-ups that led to more ads. These days it’s a minor miracle if you can look at anything on your computer or your smartphone without coming face to face with a highly personalized, targeted attack on your eyeballs and your wallet.

Cars are the next frontier. I had that epiphany last week when I learned about Grabb-It, a San Francisco start-up which allows anyone to put a video screen in their car window that streams advertisements as they drive around. Think of it as the next generation of car-wraps. On the down side, drivers lose a rear window in their cars. On the upside, they can rake in cash for doing nothing, and advertisers gain a powerful tool to target ads at specific cities, neighborhoods, and even intersections.

Not surprisingly, Grabb-It is focused on the ride-sharing industry as its starting point, and specifically gig drivers who aren’t transporting passengers around in their back seats. Think Postmates or Uber Eats. The start-up has a pilot underway in San Francisco.

You might hear this news and think of it as nothing more than a continuation of an existing trend in the form of banners on public buses and ads on taxi tops. And maybe that is all that it is. But to me it has whiffs of the internet starting to dabble with advertising for the very first time, on the precipice of a seismic shift.

In the self-driving era, who cares about a single window? Heck, who cares about a whole rear windshield? The car’s sensors and built-in cameras sure don’t need it. And who’s to say that screen technology won’t continue to improve so that advertisers can blast geo-targeted images on the outside of every car window while passengers can look out of those same windows from the inside without distraction. I wouldn’t bet against it.

Before long our streets will be full of moving billboards, as scatter-brained and distracting as the screen of your phone every time you surf Safari. Even if you find this idea distasteful and believe that the majority of other consumers will find it distasteful too, keep in mind that consumers won’t be making the decision here. Waymo will. Uber will. Lyft will.

And to them, a screen window that can show customers local points of interest, the weather, the latest breaking news, and then switch to advertisements for the rest of the world once a paying customer is inside, doesn’t sound like a silly annoyance. It sounds like a no-brainer.

At the end of the day, if those advertisements mean that you can get your ride for free, doesn’t it sound like a no-brainer to you too?

Get your sunglasses ready.


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