Self-driving cars have captured the imagination through television and movies (Knight Rider and Herbie the Love Bug, to name a few). Today, with advances in computing and other technologies, a number of technology and automotive companies are testing autonomous vehicles on public roads and expect to deploy such vehicles in the near future. Indeed, the potential of autonomous vehicles is promising— in terms of both mobility and safety. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”)—the leading federal agency responsible for automotive safety—fully autonomous vehicles (“FAVs”) have the potential to drastically improve transportation safety and decrease crashes. Currently, there are over 37,000 fatalities on the roadways, and crash data shows that 94 percent of crashes have an element of driver error. Autonomous vehicles will not only impact transportation, but will also provide advertisers a new medium to advertise their products and brands, posing exciting questions about how the technology works and what role regulators will play.
FAVs will essentially be an entertainment hub on wheels, a veritable extension of the living room that could allow advertisers to engage passengers in real-time. For example, a product or an advertisement could appear on a mobile device connected to the FAV or on a screen inside as it nears a physical store or billboard. Jessica Hawthorne-Castro, CEO of the data analytics advertising agency Hawthorne, suggests that autonomous vehicles will provide a “whole new level of personalization to the brand experience where, if an advertisement comes into [the passenger’s] car, [the passenger] could click on the ad and the vehicle could physically take [her] to where [she] can personally experience the brand or the offering.” Brands may target consumers and charter or subsidize FAV rides to their storefront or entertainment venue. Regardless, many companies are already rethinking how FAVs can fundamentally disrupt how people and goods are transported.
Of course, once the technology is implemented, FAV advertisers will be subject to the conventional advertising regimes. For example, privacy and data laws as well as Unfair or Deceptive Acts or Practices will no doubt play a role, opening the door for the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), state Attorneys General (“AGs”), and the National Advertising Division (“NAD”). All three have addressed traditional automobile advertising — i.e., advertising of vehicles — so there is little doubt each will play a role in advertising through vehicles.
For instance, the FTC has issued guidance regarding advertising consumer car leases, which includes clear and conspicuous disclosure guidelines; AGs in states like California have issued requirements regarding advertising “certified” used cars, which includes vehicle inspection obligations; and the NAD has overseen issues regarding car rental advertising, which addresses pricing disclosures. However, an important question arises: Will similar approaches be adopted for FAV advertising?
FAVs will be one of the first — if not the first — advertising media that present real-time, physical implications given the advertisement’s potential ability to change the vehicle’s destination mid-trip. Thus, are traditional automobile advertising guidelines sufficient? If not, are broader advertising guidelines – e.g., the FTC’s Dot Com Disclosures, past FTC Actions, and NAD cases – adequate? Or will advertisers look to regulators to provide or update guidance specifically for FAV advertising?
These types of questions are important and may need to be addressed in the near future. However, it is safe to expect that FAVs will substantially change not only transportation norms, but also how we interact with advertisements and each other.