Search and the automated car: why brands should get in gear

Mark Williams

Head of Search

Search evolves with technology. Desk-bound back in the ‘90s, computers took us straight to websites for information, but as search became more mobile in the ‘00s – when laptops, mobile phones and tablets hit the mainstream – we’ve been able to search more on-the-go and get the answers we’re really looking for. 

This move towards mobile has led to many advances in search – search engines and location algorithms now provide us with more personalised information. One of the next big influences on search, in my opinion? Automated cars.  

With automated vehicle technology accelerating further and further by the day, it could mean exciting things for the future of search. Let me share my thoughts…

Introduction to automated vehicles

Car automation isn’t brand new – cruise control, automatic lights and wipers have been around for decades. But it’s only now these automated functions are being pieced together that people are really taking note.

There are five tiers of vehicle automation as defined by SAE International

Tier one cars feature single-aspect automation, like staying in a lane or accelerating/braking, with the driver still very much in charge. 

On the road? Yes – a lot of cars currently on the market fall into this category.


Tier two vehicles feature computers that can take over multiple functions at once – from changing lanes to self-parking. But the driver must always be available to take control at a moment’s notice. 

On the road? Yes. Some high-end manufacturers like Tesla, BMW and Mercedes now offer this technology.


Tier three automated vehicles still require a driver to be on stand-by, but can take over all aspects of driving. 

On the road? These vehicles are cutting-edge, with models arriving in 2019-2020.


Tier four consists of fully autonomous cars that don’t require driver intervention within controlled areas, like cities. 

On the road? Not yet, but we could be seeing these vehicles by 2023.


Tier five are the pipe-dream vehicles that will require no driver input – no matter the location. They’ll likely be an extension of the house, kitted out with plenty of home comforts. 

On the road? To be fully autonomous, the AI technology will need to be able to make decisions itself. I don’t expect to see these vehicles until 2028 or later.

What does in-car search look like today?

Many vehicles currently on the road have basic voice commands that allow drivers to undertake tasks without needing to touch the dashboard. Such vehicles can make a call, or take the driver to a certain location. Platforms like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay lead the way here.

Some cars also have Google Assistant, Alexa or Siri set up, allowing drivers to do anything they would at home with their voice assistant. But by law, search features can’t be too distracting in these lower-tiered vehicles.

How might search change as vehicles do?

 When tier three, semi-automated cars hit the road, drivers will have more time on their hands, but may still need to take control at a moment’s notice. This means they’ll need to be switched-on rather than snoozing through their journey. 

Interestingly, in-car ‘distractions’ could be the perfect way to keep drivers mentally stimulated while they’re not in control of the vehicle.

"Conversational search may be dangerous for a focused, ‘always-on’ driver, but could be important for drivers in higher-tier vehicles who need to be engaged, agile and ready to take over the wheel."

As a result, I think we’ll see an increase in the amount of in-car search.

I see tier four and five, fully autonomous vehicles being like moving living rooms. Seats might face each other, creating a cosier environment. They’re likely to be multimedia-filled spaces, loaded with screens, speakers, VR headsets and maybe even holograms, in the future.

In this immersive, home-like environment, passengers could receive more personalised search results based on their previous online behaviour. At-home assistants might link up with vehicles, allowing AI conversations to be taken from the kitchen to the car.

"In time, commuters might simply ask their vehicle to “take me for lunch”, and, according to recent searches, it will predict what they’re in the mood for. Who knows – eventually, a car might be able to plan a full family day out."

In general, with drivers away from the wheel, downtime will be filled with more searching, buying and browsing – all on larger-scale, more advanced tech. That, combined with the comfortable and intimate atmosphere, will probably lead to people making bigger decisions while on-the-move.

The opportunity for brands

With automated vehicles comes a new set of targeting opportunities for digital marketers. Brands will increasingly be able to reach audiences on-the-go. M&S, for example, could drop passengers an ad based on something they’ve done in the car that suggests they’re in the market for new clothes. While local advertising is currently reliant on the target audience being nearby, with in-car advertising, the customer could be a ten-mile drive away and still make the decision to divert their route and check out the latest M&S range. Eventually, clicking on an ad could even override the vehicle’s journey (if permitted, of course), taking them straight to the doorstep of a brand’s store. 

In sum, I think it’s clear that automated vehicles and their integration with personal assistants will give brands new ways to reach their consumers through search marketing. And understanding the transition will drive you towards success.


iCrossing understands that search evolves with technology, and we’re actively thinking about how the move from search engines to personal assistants will impact brands. Want to make sure your message is heard

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