June 3, 2013 at 10:01 am

Will Self-Driving Cars Hurt Music?


In Google's early self-driving car tests, people appear to be looking at the road -- but eventually, they could stare at screens, like they do everywhere else.

The U.S. Department of Transportation hasn’t yet made up its mind about whether entirely-self-driving cars will be allowed on the nation’s roadways, although it has told states they can allow them to be tested and also said that semi-autonomous features, like staying in a lane or slowing down to avoid a collision, could be a good idea.

If self-driving cars gain acceptance and the DoT’s approval, something horrible could happen — at least from one perspective: We’ll lose the last place in the world where many of us focus intently on music.

Everywhere else (computers, earbuds, etc.), music competes with or accompanies some sort of visual entertainment or activity. But in the car, we’ve traditionally had to keep our eyes on the road, which allows us to keep our ears on the music.

The self-driving car could bring a cursed new ability to multitask ourselves into abject distraction to the car, as we tweet Instagram Vines to our Facebook Tumblrs, or whatever it is that we all seem to be doing in as many places as we can these days.

Have you taken a walk outside lately? Half the people you see have their faces buried mutely in a screen, many of them crouched in that that weird hunched-forward-head-down stance we all seem to be adopting. Fortunately (if you love cat videos, work email accounts, and the rest the internet has to offer) or unfortunately (if you like losing yourself in music while you drive), the car could lose its status as a non-video-entertainment place — arguably the last bastion of not watching screens in our lives.

“I think self-driving cars are going to seriously hurt the music business,” said Hymco proprietor David Hyman (who founded MOG and sold it to Beats Audio, and now consults for “a handful of digital media startups and more established firms,” according to his Linked In page) on Facebook, thus bringing the issue to our attention. “[It's the] last place people are held captive with inability to watch TV — so sad to think.”

Of course, just because people can watch TV doesn’t necessarily mean they will. We music fans listen to plenty of jams on our smartphones, tablets, computers, gaming consoles, and even televisions these days, which is one reason most of the popular videos on YouTube are music videos.

Still, it can’t be denied that there’s a difference between listening to music as you check email, upload photos, monitor people’s responses to your Facebook postings, work on that big proposal for work, or navigate DVR menus for your kids, and listening with intensity as you bop down the freeway, your attention on the road and your sounds.

It’s not too hard to picture us all sailing down the highways, faces illuminated by one glowing screen per person, where we used to listen to music and even think our own, personal, non-suggested thoughts, sometimes about that very music.

When I was driven around by one of the first self-driving, cars back in 2008, it didn’t occur to me what these things would mean to how we listen. I was too focused on how weird it was that the steering wheel was moving, with nobody in the driver’s seat, as I perched nervously on the passenger side. But once the novelty of that experience wears off, as it inevitably would, it’s not too hard to imagine reaching for my smartphone to check out the latest cat videos, rather than letting something like this sweep me away.

Photo: Flickr/Zack Sheppard

  • Steve Harvey

    It seems odd to suggest that people would be watching a screen rather than listening to music then offer the example of you watching a cat video in preference to…a music video! Just because people are looking at a screen doesn’t mean they will be listening to less music, surely.

  • Anonymous

    And if humans didn’t have to sleep, and/or if there were more than 24 hours in a day, do you really think the 8-hour workday / 40-hour workweek would remain?

  • http://bestcalgarydrivingschool.com/ Derek Brown

    I highly doubt people will stop listening to music, seeing as many teenagers enjoy driving around blasting their music.

  • dave birney

    interesting article. although there might be a good cross section of people out there that would rather email and watch videos than listen to music, its just that they have no choice at the moment. i wouldnt worry about it though, people who really like listening to music will keep on listening to music. its just going to weed out the non believers