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Sept. 27, 2017, 9:19 a.m.
Business Models

Self-driving cars are coming faster than you think. What will that mean for public radio?

“The connection between cars and public media is so strong. What happens when that connection is shaken a little bit?”

Picture this: Your car is driving you to work. What do you do? Pull out your phone and start checking emails? Get a novel and start reading? Do you bother to turn on the radio and listen to Morning Edition? When you tell your grandkids one day that back in the day, in the twenty-oughts, you used to listen to the radio on the work, will it seem as archaic to them as the idea of a family gathering around a radio to listen at night does now? Why would you listen to a radio in the car if you could have a screen instead?

If these don’t seem like questions we need to worry about yet, they should, according to Umbreen Bhatti and Kristen Muller. Bhatti, the manager of KQED Public Media for Northern California’s innovation lab, and Muller, the chief content officer at KPCC Southern California Public Radio, have for the past several months begun studying the role that public radio will play in a world of self-driving cars. (“Autonomous vehicles” is the preferred industry term.) “It feels distant for people,” said Muller. “But for Umbreen and me, it felt very much like a now question.”

California, where both women live and work, has granted 42 companies permits to test autonomous vehicles on the road. Bhatti and Muller see driverless cars on the road regularly (which surprised me, an East Coaster). They especially saw them around Silicon Valley when they were Knight Fellows at Stanford (Bhatti in 2014, Muller in 2016). “I instantly made the connection: That person is reading while their car is driving. I can’t read and listen to the radio at the same time. The car is where I listen to the radio, as do many of our audience members at NPR,” said Muller.

They and Liz Danzico, NPR’s creative director, received a $9,500 Jim Bettinger News Innovation Fund grant to start thinking about how driverless cars will disrupt public media. They’d expected to find some existing conversations to join, but soon realized that most conversations about driverless cars have centered around repercussions for traffic, urban planning, and car companies, and most of the focus is on getting the technology right.

“You can’t mess this up,” Bhatti said. “One mistake — one self-driving car’s technology is hijacked by a hacker and someone dies — [these companies] can’t risk that. When you’re prioritizing the safety experience, you’re not thinking so hard about the entertainment experience.” But, she added, “the connection between cars and public media is so strong. What happens when that connection is shaken a little bit?”

It’s still not clear what the entertainment systems in driverless cars will look like. The women have seen mockup designs that are very preliminary. “We don’t know if we’re essentially going to be presented with a platform from car companies where they’ll say, like, ‘Here’s your screen. Put what you want to put on it’ and now we’re competing with Netflix and Hulu,” said Muller. “Or is there a way to be part of the conversation, help shape what the entertainment experience is like for people?”

(There was a small stir in car circles yesterday when several sources reported that the new Tesla Model 3 — which has limited self-driving capabilities — comes with no AM/FM radio at all. Tesla later said FM radio, at least, would be turned on via software update at some point in the future. But the company is also reportedly negotiating directly with music labels to create its own proprietary streaming service for its cars — more evidence, if we still need it, of the power technology companies have over media consumption decisions.)

The women have talked to researchers and transportation and design experts, including those at Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design, which has the leading automotive design program in the country. “We’re exploring what this means for consumers by talking to experts first — this is such a new technology that it’s hard to ask [consumers] what they might want, or how they might think about something that they can’t even really wrap their minds around,” said Bhatti.

An MIT survey of about 3,000 people earlier this year found that 48 percent said they would never purchase a car that “completely drives itself.” Then again, there’s that off-cited Steve Jobs quote: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research.” It’s hard to know how consumers will react to autonomous vehicles until they actually have the opportunity to ride in them. “Is this really that different from a bus or a train or a plane? We don’t know yet,” said Bhatti. “We’ve circled around that a bit.”

“It’s very difficult to anticipate how people will adapt to this,” Muller said.

And so when Muller and Bhatti have brought the topic to people in public media, they’ve started breaking the question down. Asking “what opportunities do driverless cars represent for public media?” is too overwhelming a question. Instead: “How do we reimagine what the morning commute looks like?” “How do we help people feel prepared for this new technology?” “What programming opportunities do autonomous vehicles present?”

The team has had a couple of useful realizations. “We heard repeatedly from people that maybe they don’t want something that immersive, that the car is a sanctuary,” Bhatti said. This again seems like an area where people’s minds might change quickly — people who take public transportation to work seem to do just fine catching up on Netflix — but if it’s true, there might be ways to make the audio experience better instead of “just producing a whole bunch of video,” and ways to make the car “continue to feel like a sanctuary.”

Another way to think about autonomous vehicles is through the lens of community. “We think of people as lone commuters in their cars, but I think that we’re going to see autonomous vehicles alongside the rise of ridesharing,” Bhatti said. “Hardly any of the prototypes envision somebody by themselves in a car.” That means opportunities for connection. And then there are possibilities in biometrics. Could your car “know” the stressful point in someone’s commute, delivering content that addresses their moods and emotions in that moment?

“There are a lot of people who are not very excited about this transition to autonomous vehicles,” Muller said. “That means there may be a role for us to play in getting our audiences more familiar with the idea,” even just through reporting — KPCC is already covering it a fair amount, but Muller suggested public radio could be a guide to help audiences get ready.

Muller and Bhatti’s research continues, and they’re looking to hear from people in other parts of media who are interested in joining their conversation. “When walked into this thinking about the opportunities for serving audiences in driverless cars, and the dimensions really are so much more vast,” Bhatti said. “It’s about helping people feel prepared for a new technology, which includes just simply reporting on it. It includes this convening of communities. It includes things, physical structures — so much more than we initially thought.”

Oh, and it includes nausea. “One of the insights we got from a couple of the designers was that no matter what the technology is, humans are humans and motion sickness will persist,” Muller said. “If X percent of the population still gets motion sickness whether they’re driving or not, the audio will still be their friend. Video’s not gonna help them.”

Photo of a self-driving car by Grendelkhan used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Sept. 27, 2017, 9:19 a.m.
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