When do you listen to public radio? Likely not in your self-driving car

Will self-driving cars kill public radio? Or at least do it some serious harm?

On a recent trip to Arizona I kept watching for a driverless car to sail by – but no luck. The state’s straight roads and consistent, balmy weather have made it a natural choice for companies like Google, Intel and GM to test their technology. You can now hail a self-driving Volvo through Uber in the Phoenix area.

no radio option in self-driving car?

No radio option in driverless car?

Many of the conversations about “autonomous vehicles” (the industry term) focus on safety, implications for traffic and urban planning. I just heard of another possible side effect of the technology – threatening the health of public radio.

Apparently public radio audiences do much of their radio listening while driving. If your car is driving you, chances are you’ll be checking email on your phone, reading on an iPad, watching short videos – but not tuning in to CBC or NPR.

The connection to radio – any radio – will be lost. Take note, CBC Radio – not that you don’t have enough to worry about.

Researchers at the Innovation Lab at KQED Public Radio for Northern California, noticed the vehicles – easily spotted by their bulky rooftop technology – contain people looking down at screens. It got them thinking and speculating.

Quoted in Harvard’s Neiman Lab newsletter, Kristen Muller, Chief Content Officer at KPCC Southern California Public Radio, said she noticed the cars and,  “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,” she said.

We just don’t know how people will use autonomous vehicles yet – so it’s hard to imagine what part entertainment will play. What will  the consoles even look like? Maybe we’ll be sitting around with colleagues talking – like some train travel. More likely we’ll be glued to screens since that’s what most of us do given an opportunity.

Is this a chance for public radio to lobby and bring forward new programming? Or will this do the medium serious harm?

But wait – maybe CBC needn’t despair. The researchers pointed out that perhaps motion sickness can save radio. Maybe people actually won’t want to stare down at a screen in a moving vehicle.

Disruption is afoot – more will be revealed.


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