Are Publishers Ready to Connect Their News Apps to Self-Driving Cars?

For years drivers have had “news radio” to listen to during their daily commutes, but typically this coverage and reporting has revolved around traffic and weather updates, with the actual news being relegated to the headlines often between extended commercial breaks. Even the news channels available on satellite radio have been more in-line with “talk radio” rather than hard news. News junkies have been left with few options to get informed during the morning drive to work.

As a result, there could be an opportunity for traditional daily newspapers publishers to carve out a niche via their mobile apps, but the content would have to be specifically tailored for drivers. Such offerings could provide the depth and reporting that made newspapers the original source of information to start the day.

Mark Bünger

“This application would have to be different from what is now available as drivers would need it to be read aloud,” said Mark Bünger, research director at Lux Research. “There are already offerings such as podcasts that are being streamed, but to date there hasn’t really been much in the way of specific news apps that have been targeted at drivers.”

Greg Sterling

“Newspaper apps are potentially viable,” said Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy and insight at the Local Search Association. “Safety argues against video, so the apps that are going to have the most immediate success will be streaming audio apps.”

There are already mobile phone apps that do the reading for the driver, including one from voice-recognition developer Nuance called the Dragon Drive. However, it has mostly only allowed drivers to dictate text messages and emails and to hear back the same.

Another app, Newsbeat for iOS and Android, will actually read customized news feeds aloud, and its content is accrued from multiple sources including many newspapers. It includes selections by topics such as U.S., world, local, business, politics, entertainment and more, while the audio is a mix of text-to-speech as well as an actual human voice. The app may do the reading, but most reviewers have complained that the navigation is not without issues for those who can’t take the time to look at their phone.

Newspapers could thus find opportunity by also targeting drivers directly, as these could be very much a captive audience. The key will be in making the navigation something that can also be done via audible prompts.

“There is definitely an opportunity for newspapers and publishers to utilize smartphone apps connected to a car’s media interface system,” said Jordan Edelson, founder and CEO of Appetizer Mobile, an app development firm based in New York City. “Phones paired via Bluetooth or through Apple CarPlay or Android Auto can enable apps to go hands free within a vehicle. Then by utilizing spoken commands, drivers can navigate those apps without the need to physically touch their devices.”

Newspaper apps could become more important to drivers as the car takes over more of the driving as well.

Jordan Edelson

“Over the next several years, infotainment systems built into cars are going to become a major focus especially as we enter a world of truly autonomous vehicles,” Edelson said. “Drivers will be freed up from many of the important attention requiring tasks needed to drive a car today. They will be able to enjoy new mediums of entertainment within vehicles including the consumption of newspapers and other published content.”

There is already hardware—including tablets and e-readers—that can provide similar functionality.

“(Newspaper apps) would work, but it already has been out there,” said Dr. John C. Watson, associate professor at the school of communications at American University in Washington, D.C. “My Kindle carries my newspaper subscriptions and it can be plugged into my car radio and a mechanical voice would read it. An app improvement could announce the headlines and the user could give a voice command to read or skim the interesting ones.”

Putting the Brakes on Apps

What could potentially slow down the adoption of newspaper-based apps, even ones that read the news to drivers, could be rules on how apps are used in the automobile.

Last November, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) released proposed guidelines to address driver distraction caused by mobile and other electronic devices that are used in vehicles.

These guidelines, which at this point remain voluntary, were designed to encourage portable and aftermarket electronic device developers to design products that, when used while driving, reduce the potential for driver distraction. The guidelines further called upon manufacturers to implement features such as pairing, where a portable device is linked to a vehicle’s infotainment system, as well as driver mode, which is a simplified user interface.

“There are already apps that restrict drivers from utilizing them when a car is in motion or when they are in the driver’s seat,” said Edelson. “Regulations will likely relax in the future, but for now I would expect possible additional regulation to be considered, but that is not a reason for newspapers and publishers not to deploy mobile app experiences for drivers.”

Competing With Radio

The print medium has long competed, and even co-existed, with broadcasting, but newspaper apps could now have the potential to actually be the disrupters in mobile content consumption.

Josh Crandall

“Similar to the way Google Maps has undermined the GPS market, smartphone apps will disrupt the market for satellite radio services,” said Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research. “The sleeping giants in the news space aren’t news apps at all. The giants to reckon with are the digital assistants from Google, Amazon and Apple…Google, Alexa and Siri are the names that satellite radio operators will fear. With a quick ‘hotword,’ which activates a voice response app, a driver doesn’t even need to touch their smartphone to hear the latest news stories. They are safe and news outlets are already packaging content for these channels.”

As such, SiriusXM and conventional radio will ultimately probably be threatened by Android Auto and CarPlay but mainstream adoption could still take a few years, said Local Search Association’s Sterling, who added, “In the near term audiences will be shaved by in-car apps.”

One of the biggest issues with a changing delivery of newspapers is that often times what is written for print doesn’t immediately translate to the spoken word. Audio books often relied on actors and others noted for their ability to engage the audience with their voice, and a mechanical voice could come off flat.

The other part of this is that as companies like Audible, the Amazon-owned seller and producer of spoken audio entertainment, information, and educational programming, has found it is hard to deliver timely content on a daily basis. It would be a major undertaking for newspapers to record its stories—including updates that appear online—throughout the day.

However, there is little doubt that machine learning and advanced algorithms will allow a computer to sound more natural or even “imitate” celebrities or broadcasters—this could itself be a business opportunity where some could license their voice, even if they never do the actual reading of the content.

The final hurdle could be one of the airwaves in a different way however, as newspaper apps could find themselves at the mercy of consumer data plans. Yet in the end, traditional radio, satellite radio and newspapers could find themselves in a battle with other internet content.

“Right now Verizon, AT&T and other carriers are changing the data plans offered to consumers,” said Lux Research’s Bünger. “That handset can provide a lot of information including thousands of radio stations and news sources for free.”

How Autonomous Technology Could Change Vehicle Infotainment     

Mark C. Boyadjis

Today the layout of a vehicle is designed to provide comfort and ease of operation to the drivers. More importantly, the primary controls remain the steering wheel, transmission shifter and pedals, while environmental and infotainment controls are still very much secondary yet still designed so as not to be difficult for the driver to use.

In fact, there are now controls on the steering wheel to allow a driver to remotely access a mobile device or even to adjust the infotainment system, and all of this is still designed to limit driver distraction.

As the radio has involved into the aforementioned “infotainment system,” so too could the other controls as the car begins to do more of the driving. This will only likely advance as we head closer to the so-called “self-driving” or autonomous car. We are actually much closer than many people might expect.

Several automakers, as well as Google and Apple, are in the process of developing “self-driving cars.” So much progress has been made already that in May 2013 the United States Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its policy on automated vehicle development. This set the levels of what determines how much the car is actually doing the driving.

The NHTSA policy on automation also clarified the five levels of automation for vehicles, and these include: No-Automation (Level 0), where the driver has complete and sole control of the vehicle controls; Function-specific Automation (Level 1), which provides specific control functions such as electric stability and pre-charged brakes or other driver assist; Combined Function Automation (Level 2), where at least two primary functions work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions; Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3), where a driver can cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic and/or environmental conditions; and finally Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4), where the car can perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.

As the car does more of the driving, it will allow all of the users inside to do other things, which is why tech giants such as Google are working hard to be part of this next automotive revolution.

“The consumption of content and those business models built around it will do well in the world of automated vehicles,” said Mark C. Boyadjis, principal analyst and manager for the automotive user experience at IHS Automotive. “There will be new opportunities for the consumption of content.”

A fully autonomous vehicle however is years, possibly even decades away. Currently, the level of control is really only reaching level 3, but great strides are being made.

“BMW, Mercedes and Volvo are offering the ability to lock into autonomous modes where you could have a moment of distraction,” Boyadjis said. “This is still only a moment, so it isn’t long enough to like a page on Facebook and of course not long enough to read an article in the newspaper, but we are reaching the point where you can turn on the system and in low speed traffic allow the car to take more of the control.”

However, on a longer timeline it isn’t hard to envision that users will be able to take in the newspaper during the daily commute. In the 10,000 years of human history, cars have only existed for the past 150 years, and while cities have been adapted to allow for automotive traffic—and suburbs created pretty much because of the freedom cars have allowed—it isn’t too hard to think how autonomous cars will provide a different level of freedom.

“We are predicting that it will be the mid-2020s where the cultural norm changes,” said Boyadjis. “It is when we expect that the driver engagement will change, but so too will the ownership model. This will change the infotainment systems, as productivity and entertainment will be more empowering in the car.”

Just as NPR and other news radio stations have evolved around daily commuting schedules, so too could other services.

“I’d be very surprised if a Netflix or a New York Times isn’t already thinking of how it can address a day when people aren’t required to pay attention,” Boyadjis said. “In the future, there will be opportunities to reach this captive audience with new offerings.”

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