Friday Five – VW and Ford partner for driverless cars, Apple funding podcasts, and the battle for airplane WiFi

Driverless future: Two (or more) heads (and purses) are better than one

Automotive research labs from Detroit-Silicon Valley to Bavaria to Shanghai have been hard at work toward a driverless future. Deadlines were ambitious, oscillating somewhere between 2019 and 2021 spectrum for attainment of SAE Level 4 autonomy amongst key leaders in the game (that’s the level where a car can drive itself almost entirely without any human input, with exceptions for unmapped areas or bad weather). Captivated by the vision of having their names immortalized among disruptors of transportation, investors from SoftBank to Amazon rushed to get in on the action in the early years of infectious optimism. Fast forward a few years, and enthusiastic hubris is somewhat subdued, tamed by challenging reality. As it turns out, making autonomous vehicles is a difficult and costly endeavor. Velodyne’s LiDAR (a critical piece of equipment from an industry leader), for instance, clocks in at a cool $75,000 per car.

Here’s where going it alone is increasingly abandoned in favor of teamwork. Automakers are teaming up to spread the expense and to amplify the know-how. The latest is Volkswagen’s partnership with Ford to invest $7 billion into Argo AI, a designer of Level 4 autonomous systems. The newest partnership joins a long list of other star-studded pairs: BMW-Daimler, Waymo-Renault-Nissan, NVIDIA-Mercedes-Benz, Uber-Volvo, and others. That’s just on the OEM front. More tie-ups are popping up in the secondary industries that are also scrambling for renaissance in the autonomous future. Avis, one of the oldest rental car companies in America, works with Waymo to care for its autonomous fleet in Phoenix. Partnerships within and beyond the automotive value chain will be key to autonomous vehicle development if its fearless leaders are serious about reaching that magical Level 5 autonomy by 2025-ish (Level 5, the highest, is defined as Level 4 PLUS ability to drive autonomously everywhere in all conditions).

Apple helps podcasts kill the radio star

Apple has unveiled a plan to fund podcasts exclusive to its audio service to fight off rivals like Spotify and Stitcher from taking a bite of its 55% share of the podcast market. Apple paved the way in 2014 by adding a Podcast app to the iPhone that made subscription seamless. However, it was the investigative crime podcast Serial that truly launched the burgeoning medium as it gained a million listeners within its first month. Serial’s mélange of elements from fiction and investigative journalism set the template for future podcasts to come.

Podcasts have emerged as a lucrative market as a quarter of Americans listen to podcasts at least once a month. Its popularity stems from its diverse content which covers both topics of general interest and niche areas, like the Pen Addict. This broad scope is further driven by the diversity of its listeners which largely reflects the composition of the US population although it’s debatable how many can afford the Casper mattress that permeates podcast ads.

The most downloaded podcasts run the gamut from a daily news brief from the New York Times to the Joe Rogan experience where Elon Musk famously smoked a blunt during the taping. Companies like General Electric, Mastercard, eBay and Tinder have created branded podcasts to engage consumers that are conditioned to tune out visual ads. While Apple has yet to run ads or charge for its podcast service, future exclusive content could forever bind consumers to the Apple cult for their podcast fix.

Everyone needs WiFi when they fly-hi

Not so long ago the time spent sandwiched in a flying tin can was typically filled with reading, perusing on-board entertainment, napping, gazing at cumulus clouds through the window, or, if luck permits, having a delightful chat with one’s charming neighbor. No emails, no Facebook, no “breaking news” of our turbulent world for the duration of the entire flight. No more. As airplane WiFi becomes more available so does the opportunity (or a curse) to stay atop of that “inbox zero.”

Today 54 airlines offer some sort of onboard Internet, with price and quality ranging widely depending on airlines and equipment. As onboard WiFi becomes an expectation rather than a fancy perk, airlines are looking to upgrade their planes to satellite service so that they can handle heavy usage and support seamless streaming of all those YouTube Baby Shark videos.  Sponsorship is one way to go about this – Amazon is helping out JetBlue, Apple is tying up with American Airlines, and T-Mobile jives with Gogo to provide WiFi for travelers. Only 6-7% of passengers buy WiFi, yet 40-60% use it if it’s free. Filling this niche is thus an attractive opportunity for sponsors to grow brand visibility for a captive audience. And for airlines, happy customers = competitive advantage = fatter profits. Everyone wins. Bon Voyage.

Elon Musk’s bringing the Borg to real life and resistance is futile

In a move that future humans will surely reflect on saying “that was a great idea and totally not the moment Skynet took over the world”, Elon Musk has revealed his Neuralink startup is looking to start human trials in 2020. The secretive company has been building brain-machine interfaces. The device embeds thin threads connected to a tiny processor into the brain via drilled holes. Not to worry, the threads are smaller than a hair strand, so your skull won’t be looking like a slice of Swiss cheese. In true Silicon Valley life-hacking style, Musk said the device will have an ‘app store’ in the future for different programs to tap into the tech. In the shorter term, the applications of the device will be for helping people who have suffered from severe brain injuries and in the longer-term Musk said the device could be used to communicate via a kind of telepathy. It remains to be seen if there is a marketplace for people who hate talking but still would like to communicate.

Musk has a tendency for moonshots – quite literally with his privatization of space play SpaceX, and also seen in his then-revolutionary approach to EVs with Tesla. Neuralink is no different in its ambition, however neuroscience is much more of a careful and incremental advance type industry, as well as medicine having pesky regulators like the FDA (regulators and Musk are like oil and water #ShortsellerEnrichmentCommision) it will be interesting to see how Musk’s don’t look before you leap type leadership will play out in the space.

Storm Area 51: The internet’s latest gift to earthlings

What started as a joke has now led to the US Air Force issuing a stern warning that “any attempt to illegally access the area is highly discouraged” to the 1.6 million people who RSVP’d yes to “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop Us All” event. The internet’s latest viral fad is everywhere – Guy Fieri has said he’d cater the event with radioactive ribs, Bud Light said they’ll offer their new Area 51 labelled beer to the aliens, MoonPie offered their marshmallow sandwiches, and of course viral phenom Lil Nas X is in on the action releasing an Area 51-themed music video.

What does going viral equate to in the real world? The internet’s latest darling Lil Nas X went mega viral on app TikTok with his song ‘Old Town Road’. The song was turned into a ‘challenge’ by TikTok-ers, which entailed people drinking “yee yee juice” and turning into a cowboy when the song’s beat dropped. Lil Nas X transformed this social media popularity into a record deal with Columbia, and a remix of the song with Miley Cyrus’s dad (also known as Billy Ray Cyrus) racked up 500 million streams on Spotify. It remains to be seen if millions will storm Area 51 on September 20th, but it seems that going viral can translate to IRL developments … the aliens will be counting on it.

Read last week’s edition of Friday Five: Deutsche Bank layoffs, millennials are ruining housing, and folding smart watches

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