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Self-Driving Cars: Businesses Offering Free Rides Could Rock the Retail World

Is there anyone who doesn’t think self-driving cars will be a major disruptor? You don’t need to be an expert to realize cars that drive themselves will turn a number of industries on their heads. Not only will they affect personal transportation, but they will also change the very landscape of cities. Scores of thousands of professional drivers of trucks, taxis and buses will find demand for their services evaporate almost overnight. Local governments will be strapped for cash as the revenue for traffic violations disappears. Examples go on and on and on.

If you run a business dependent on customers walking in your front door, say a restaurant, hair dresser or movie theater, autonomous vehicles (AVs) could offer a new solution to attracting those customers. According to CNN Tech, in a world where cars drive themselves and car sharing becomes vogue, AV rides could be so cheap, businesses will provide free transportation to and from their locations to attract customers.

Think about it: You are torn trying to decide between going for pizza or seafood. One restaurant offers free rides to and from its location and the other doesn’t. Which would you probably choose?

The Costs

Despite all the news reports indicating we are at the brink of the AV age, streets filled with driverless cars, buses and trucks zipping from place to place are still more fantasy than reality. AVs may well dominate our roads, but not any time soon. At some point, however, they probably will.

Experts predict that not only will we eventually accept being whisked around by self-driving cars, but we will also be quite comfortable with sharing those cars with others — perhaps even sharing ownership or renting them out when they would otherwise be parked. The cost of AV rides may become so low that many of us would even opt out of car ownership, further increasing the fleet of driverless transports. No drivers to pay and cars parking only to refuel, recharge or whatever would mean hiring a ride should be pretty cheap. Dirt cheap, as a matter of fact.

The Advantage

For a business owner, noodling over how to attract business is a 24/7/52 effort. It’s nonstop. As our entertainment and information sources continue to become even more fragmented, trying to find the right sites through which to reach the most consumers interested in whatever we offer becomes more and more difficult and time-consuming.

Within such an environment, offering free rides to customers may be a simple and affordable solution to the how-to-attract-consumers issue.

The Precedent

If this free-ride notion seems a bit far-fetched, CNN Tech points out that it’s already happening. The first example it notes is free rides within contained areas, such as several downtown blocks. Supported by businesses or local government, golf carts or trolleys would follow predetermined routes or answer an app summons to move people from one downtown location to the next.

The other widespread example CNN Tech cites is the commercial parking lots surrounding most large airports with free shuttles running back and forth to the airline terminals.

Many urban-dwellers have at least one car-sharing app, like Uber or Lyft, on their smartphones. They are already quite comfortable with ride hailing. The hurdle of coaxing consumers into hailing rides has already been cleared. The stage is set.

What it means to you: The day will probably come when a chunk of the promotional budget of many businesses will be devoted to offering free rides to customers.

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More

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