For whatever benefits the vehicle-as-a-service might net a consumer, this new Ford patent hints at a possible downside: inescapable ads blaring on your car’s infotainment screen. The same onboard data connections proliferating throughout vehicle lineups that allow for built-in WiFi and over-the-air vehicle updates could be a pipeline for in-car advertising. What if you drive by a billboard, and suddenly whatever it’s advertising is pushed to your vehicle’s screen? A little, inescapable billboard, not passing by as you drive on, but rather along for the ride—just to make sure you can see it, and (we assume) Ford would get a cut.
While Ford’s patent suggests that reality is at hand, a closer look at what it’s actually proposing is a little different. Here’s the gist from the automaker/advertiser point of view: you drive by a billboard advertising something you want to do—say, stopping for a hot dog. But you don’t have time to register all the information on the billboard in an actionable way; maybe you catch the location (“Take Exit 72”) but fail to catch the name. Sounds like a poorly-designed billboard, but sure, there’s a risk the driver won’t take in the whole thing while driving on by, or maybe a loping semi truck blocked your view.
Ford aims to capture that info and make it a lot easier to take action. The patent requires the use of a smart device (phone, tablet, watch, etc.) with a camera pointed at the right place. The camera scans for billboards. If it sees one, it captures it and processes it. If it determines certain criteria are met, it sends it to the vehicle for processing. The actionable info, if any, is stripped out of the billboard: a phone number might appear on the screen, and clicking on it would call the business. The system could ask if the driver wanted directions to that location, and send a route to the nav.
If you wanted to go to that place, this is all reasonably useful. And the fact that it’s tied to a device means there’s likely an app that requires permission for this all to work. Slipping your phone in your pocket, or disallowing camera access to the app, or declining to enable the feature on the vehicle would all circumvent this. Ford’s patent doesn’t describe some nightmarish ad landscape out of Blade Runner, with a cacophony of holo-ads surrounding you, blaring and inescapable.
But surely you can see how a different system might approach that. Many vehicles have cameras to enable driver-assistance features, and traffic sign recognition is already out there. Getting the car to interpret other things out in the world is just a matter of programming, and removing the requirement of using an external smart device makes it that much harder to avoid. With smart assistant integration, like Ford is doing with Alexa, you could even just prompt the system to interact with a billboard, or perhaps Alexa would prompt you.
As others like Gizmodo have rightly pointed out, the ad-based “free” app model could migrate to vehicles more broadly, rather than just the subscription or options up-charge model. Pay a little more for an ad-free experience—or pay less and endure it. Consumers will have to make that call—and, hopefully, regulators would make a call about potential driver distraction.