Self-Driving Cars And e-Billboarding: Promise And Peril

Dr. Lance Eliot, AI Insider

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[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column:]

During a normal daily commute in a big city, you might see about 20 to 30 billboards, though you are likely so used to the presence of the billboards that you don’t give any conscious thought toward them.

Interestingly, there are an estimated 350,000 billboards throughout the United States.

That’s a lot of billboards!

Estimates of the amount of money spent on billboards annually in the U.S. vary, but many would guess it is around $8 billion dollars.

In essence, those billboards that you drive past at 65 miles per hour, and for which maybe you notice and maybe you don’t, they are big business involving big bucks.

Advertisers seem to think that billboards are worth paying for.

A particular type of billboard that can be particularly noticeable is an electronic one that is constantly changing from one image to another, and changes throughout the week.

It is easy for the company owning the billboard to showcase new items and avoid the usual labor-intensive act of having to put up a large-scale poster or otherwise do something physical when putting on a fresh ad for the billboard.

These so-called electronic billboards, often referred to as e-billboards, offer the advantage of being easy and quick for displaying any new or changing ads.

Some people are happy that we are gradually shifting to electronic billboards since it dispenses with the use of paper, or canvas, or paints, and they would say that the e-billboards are better for the environment accordingly.

Those that dislike billboards for the visual pollution tend to say that the electronic billboards are much worse in visual clutter than the traditional kinds of billboards.

In addition to stationary billboards, such as those on a standalone basis and ones that are wrapped around buildings, there are also moving billboards.

About In-Motion Billboards

By moving billboards, I mean they were in motion.

The billboard itself is moving — typically involving a truck towing the billboard and the billboard was mounted on wheels.

Those moving billboards are large and bulky, and they tend to block the view of traffic. Such towed billboards can also “hide” pedestrians that are trying to jaywalk across a busy street.

There are some that believe the towed billboards should be outlawed or banned.

You could also say that they are using up precious fuel and generating automotive pollutants for a somewhat questionable basis.

It is one thing if you put a billboard on the side of a bus, since the bus is a form or public transportation and by using it for a billboard you are doing double duty.

Having a truck that cruises around and around, doing nothing other than towing a billboard, it is something that many believe is improper and inappropriate.

This does bring up another facet that concerns many people about billboards altogether.

They are a distraction.

If you are driving on the freeway and see a billboard up ahead, which are you going to do, focus on the roadway or instead look at the billboard?

I’ve primarily so far been discussing what many refer to as Outdoor Advertising (OA), or sometimes referred to as Out-of-Home (OOH) advertising. There is advertising that you might see while inside an airport such as LAX, plastered on the walls and with standalone kiosks throughout the terminal areas. I’m herein mainly focusing on the kind of billboards and ads that you see while outdoors such as nearby to highways, freeways, and streets.

There are the large outdoor advertising stands that are a physical structure and have a movie-screen sized poster or similar pictorial display. I’ve also mentioned that some now are electronic displays.

I’m going to call them e-billboards, though some refer to them as Digital Billboards (DBB) or possibly Digital Out-of-the-Home (DOOH) displays.

AI Self-Driving Cars And e-Billboarding

What does this have to do with AI self-driving driverless autonomous cars?

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI software for self-driving cars. One arising aspect involves the potential for e-billboarding becoming a significant element of AI self-driving cars.

First, be aware that there are pundits on both sides of the issue about what will ultimately happen to billboards once we have prevalent AI self-driving cars.

There are the pessimists that say billboards will gradually disappear and you won’t see them alongside our roadways anymore, while there are the optimists that claim the billboard will flourish though in ways different from the billboards of today.

Let’s consider these two divergent viewpoints.

The Predicted Demise Of Billboards

Why might billboards become a lost art and die off?

Here’s why.

If we are all ensconced in our AI self-driving cars, it is believed that we will sleep in them, we will work while inside them, and that otherwise we will be visually entertained and our focus will be nearly exclusively on the interior of the self-driving car.

There is no particular reason to look out the car windows when you are in a true Level 5 self-driving car because the AI is doing the driving and you don’t need to pay attention to the roadway (that’s the theory of it).

In fact, you probably don’t really want windows at all and instead would use that same area to have LED displays.

Some companies are going to be making car windows that can be readily electronically made to switch from being transparent to being opaque.

This would allow you to use those car windows for either acting as internal LED displays or to be used to look outside of the car.

If this prediction is correct, it means that the billboards that are alongside our roadways won’t be seen by anyone that’s inside a car.

As mentioned earlier, today’s billboards survive and succeed when they attract eyeballs. No eyeballs, no point in paying to put your advertisement on the billboard. No paying advertisers means the billboard companies won’t make money. Billboard companies not making money will let their old-time billboards languish, and they’ll become relics.

Here’s another nail in the coffin for those outdoor billboards.

If you are focusing your attention inside the self-driving car, advertisers are going to fight to get onto the LED displays inside the self-driving car.

Does all of this mean that you should be dumping your stock in billboard companies?

Well, let’s hear what the other side of the coin has to say.

We need to give the optimists a chance to speak their piece.

e-Billboards To The Rescue

The optimists say that the glory days of billboards are yet upon us.

The slight twist will be that the billboards will become predominantly e-billboards.

These e-billboards will do much more than the ones of today.

Suppose you are in your AI self-driving car and heading to work.

Your AI self-driving car is likely using V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) electronic communications to communicate with other nearby self-driving cars. This will allow the various self-driving cars around your self-driving car to coordinate their activities. If one of the self-driving cars detects debris up ahead in the rightmost lane, it can quickly inform the other AI systems of the upcoming self-driving cars. Those AI systems would then presumably try to get out of the rightmost lane so as to avoid hitting the debris.

These V2V transmissions can be picked-up by essentially anyone or anything that is nearby. The billboard company might have edge computing devices that are attached to their outdoor billboard or that are nearby the billboard. These edge computing devices are keeping tabs on the V2V communications.

This might allow the e-billboard that you are about to drive past to suddenly be changed to display an image or video that applies to you, or maybe to those around you in nearby self-driving cars.

The Machine Learning (ML) or Deep Learning (DL) system being used by the billboard company is collecting tons of data while self-driving cars are streaming along on the freeway, and the ML and DL is able to try and figure out which ads are best to be placed on the e-billboard display. This can change too from moment to moment, all depending upon the pattern of the traffic and who is driving past the e-billboard.

What about the idea that you’ll be in your self-driving car as an enclosed shell and won’t be looking outside?

Nonsense say the optimists.

You are going to want to look outside.

Why care about this aspect?

It could imply that there are going to be even more eyeballs for billboard watching. People that don’t use a car today or rarely use one will potentially readily use AI self-driving cars as a ridesharing medium. So you’ve now turned the human drivers into passengers with eyeballs to watch billboards, and you are adding more people to traveling in cars (self-driving cars), which puts more eyeballs within range of seeing the billboards (mainly e-billboards).

It is a kind of eyeball growth nirvana.

Counting Eyeballs Will Be Easier

Here’s a twist for you.

AI self-driving cars are going to be outfitted with cameras that point inward, allowing whomever is inside the AI self-driving car to be captured on video. Ridesharing firms will do this to protect the self-driving cars and be able to know if someone is messing around by destroying the interior or writing graffiti on the interior car walls.

The twist is that the billboard company could ask the auto maker or tech firm to report whether people gazed at the billboard as the self-driving car went past it.

This would be easy data to collect.

The OTA (Over-the-Air) electronic connection between the self-driving car and the automaker or tech firm cloud will be uploading data from the self-driving car, doing so to aid the automaker or tech firm in analyzing the data and presumably improving the AI systems of the self-driving car (the OTA can allow them to push updates and patches to the AI of the self-driving car).

All the automaker or tech firm needs to do is set up an automated system that would scan through the uploaded video of the interior facing camera and do a search for the time whenever the self-driving car went past the billboard. At that point in the video, the automated system could readily detect the faces of the people inside the AI self-driving car. This detection could also examine whether the faces are looking outside the self-driving car and whether their eyes and gaze seemed to be in the direction of the e-billboard.

What Is The Future

Which camp are you in?

Do you think that the pessimists are correct, and the billboard industry is doomed?

Or, do you believe the optimists are on the right track and the billboard industry is heading to a grand resurgence?

Both arguments seem rather compelling.

I’ll now provide the added element that I’ve not yet mentioned but could be a bonanza.

What about the exterior of the AI self-driving car?

Suppose we place on the exterior of the AI self-driving car an electronic billboard or maybe a series of them all around the outside of the vehicle.

The AI self-driving car now becomes a moving billboard.

The good news is that the e-billboard of the AI self-driving car is presumably doing double-duty in that the AI self-driving car is also carrying occupants, similar to how the buses with billboards are doing double-duty.

In other words, if the AI self-driving car is taking someone from point A to point B, why not also be displaying electronic ads on the outside of the self-driving car too. This would be relatively easy to arrange. The OTA of the self-driving car could get ads pumped down to the AI self-driving car. These ads could change depending upon where the AI self-driving car is headed.

For example, suppose you are taking the AI self-driving car to the baseball stadium, so you can watch a baseball game that will be played there. The AI realizes that you are heading to the baseball stadium. There are going to be lots of other cars nearby with people also heading to the baseball game. There will be baseball avid pedestrians too, once your AI self-driving car gets closer to the stadium.

Here’s another neat trick.

The sensors of the AI self-driving car are detecting the presence of pedestrians and other cars, doing so to properly drive the self-driving car. You could readily use that same data to spot whether people are looking at the displays on the outside of the AI self-driving car. Once again, we have a means to easily provide a quantitative measure of whether the ads are actually being seen by people.

Seems like a win-win.

Possible Downsides To AI Self-Driving Cars

Some wonder whether these external displays might confuse the sensors of the AI self-driving cars.

Here’s what they mean.

Suppose your AI self-driving car is heading along on the freeway and there is another self-driving car ahead of it.

This other self-driving car has a big display at the rear of the car and can be seen readily by anyone behind the AI self-driving car.

The display suddenly shows a mad bull that seems to be rushing toward you. It’s only a video. But, perhaps the camera on your AI self-driving car does not realize this is merely a video and does an image analysis and concludes that a mad bull is charging directly at the AI self-driving car. This gets conveyed to the AI Action Planning portion of the system, and all of sudden the AI is commanding your self-driving car to make a radical and risky lane change to get away from the charging bull. Oops, shame on the AI.

I know you might laugh at this notion.

Perhaps the charging bull is not the most serious way to express the dangers.

The point though is that it is presumably a possibility that the displays on various nearby AI self-driving cars might visually overwhelm or confuse or confound the sensors of the other nearby AI self-driving cars. As such, one could lob the same kind of criticism about distracting human drivers, which instead that these displays could “distract” (maybe confuse or fool) the AI system of the self-driving car.

That being said, many pundits of AI self-driving cars would say that any self-respecting AI self-driving car that might get confused by an electronic display that is nearby shouldn’t be on the roadway to begin with. If it is that easy to confuse or fool the AI, the AI doesn’t deserve to be driving a self-driving car. For them, this suggestion that ad e-billboards on self-driving cars might be a danger to driving is a non-starter and they reject the notion entirely.


For billboard companies, it could be the best of times or it could be the worst of times, and the advent of AI self-driving cars might be the determiner of which way things will go.

Will we end-up with roadside e-billboards or will they not make the cut.

Will we end-up with e-billboards on the exterior of our AI self-driving cars?

For those of you that already don’t like the visual clutter or visual pollution of billboards, pretend for a moment that all 250+ million cars in the United States are eventually replaced by AI self-driving cars and that they all have exterior e-billboards displays.

If this makes you shudder, I guess you’ll want to never look outside your AI self-driving car. Plus, when walking around as a pedestrian, perhaps wear some kind of special Augmented Reality (AR) glasses that are able to block out the e-billboards that are flashing and glaring all around you.

Until this is all figured out, I’m voting that nobody runs an ad with a charging bull as part of their exterior displays on any AI self-driving cars.


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Copyright © 2020 Dr. Lance B. Eliot

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Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

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