If there was one takeaway from the video Google released last week of its self-driving cars—besides the fact that, you know, they drive themselves—it’s how boring the typical commute could soon be.
Sure, the people in the video are completely amazed at being chauffeured around by a machine, but of course they would be. It’s a freakin’ robot, after all. But what happens when the novelty wears off?
Google’s first effort is minimalistically sparse on bells and whistles—the cars only have a start/stop button and a screen that shows occupants the route they’re taking—and understandably so. The company wants to make sure the main functions work perfectly before adding accoutrements. In the meantime, there’s zilch for those passengers to do except stare out the window and ponder how increasingly useless they’re becoming.
It’s only when those extras are considered that it starts to become clearer just how big these cars are going to be for Google. After all, people are going to need to do something while they’re being driven around. We are an easily bored species, after all.
There has been much speculation over just how Google will monetize robot cars, which are pretty far outside of its core competency and revenue-generating zone of search-plus-advertising. Sure, the cars could represent another avenue (no pun intended) for that base business, where companies might be willing to pay for more geographically relevant ads. The car’s screen could flash ads for the nearest gas station when it starts to run low on fuel, for example, or even restaurants around lunch and dinner times.
But alleviating boredom, or more specifically filling the attention slot that used to be reserved for actual driving, could prove to be the bigger cash cow. Hello Google Play.
Google is putting more effort into its online store of late with several expansions, including a move into Canada with its music portion plus a deal with PayPal across a number of other countries. Not surprisingly, Play is growing by leaps and bounds. The business accounts for about $1 billion in annual revenue for Google right now, a small percentage of its overall revenue of $55 billion, but that’s projected to nearly quintuple by 2017.
On a longer timeline, even that strong growth will seem low after figuring in all the movies, music and games people will want to consume in their robot cars, which Google will be only too happy to supply them with.
Google declined to comment on this post but there are many efforts underway to make sure that happens, from the company’s own plans to spread wi-fi and the use of so-called “white space” radio spectrum that falls in between the licenses owned by cellphone companies.
Continuing improvements in the range and quality of wi-fi routers, plus the continuing incorporation of wireless technology into cars, also mean that users won’t have connectivity problems downloading content into their vehicles by the time the machines become fully automated.
Apple is doing its part to cater to automobiles as well with CarPlay, which extends iOS devices into vehicles, but the company’s efforts so far are miles away (again, pun not intended) from the total integration that Google looks to be working on. It’s one thing for Apple to partner with automobile makers to make its technology more compatible in their products, it’s another thing entirely to build the vehicles from the ground up.
With the average American spending two to two-and-a-half hours a day in a car, that’s a lot of space to fill with entertainment content. Robot cars could shrink that time by providing more efficient drives, but they could also easily increase it by encouraging people to move around more.
Either way, Google is positioning itself to fill that boredom void more so than anyone else.