Like my media colleague, I was a little skeptical to learn over a year ago that Google was developing and beginning to promote a driverless car.  But could a sensor-laden vehicle be any worse than the current crop of California drivers in and around the Google campus?   I leave that answer to those navigating the Nascar-like highways we drive everyday.  The question I wanted to explore was the media’s interest in driverless or autonomous vehicle trends.  Was there any meat on that topic to support a serious wave in media coverage.  And to make things a little more interesting, I wanted to take a trend with considerable media magnetism – smartwatches – and compare the media rating performance of the two.

Here’s what I learned.

The media rating trajectory for the driverless or autonomous car trend is outstanding. The topic was pulling a 41 media rating 4-years ago and is now topping 74 points, just shy of its 4-year high of 75 points last month.

Momentum is off -54% since is quite difficult to maintain the media growth rates the trend has been experiencing since 2011.  This is an important media measurement point missed by many services that count mentions without providing the context of the thousands of other trends, brands, topics and influencers being covered at the same time.  While the trend looks strong, momentum is dropping.  But the CUME rate (cumulative growth over a longer period) is well above other trends and topics.

Year-over-year growth is strong at +17%. Again, with a trend moving in such a strong and positive direction the metric that best conveys the magnitude is the 4-year cumulative growth rate (CUME) which is a very strong +22%.

In comparison, the smartwatch media rating, fueled by the recent Apple Watch announcement, is up +2 points at a 88 – a new high for the trending storyline.  The trend is ranked #4 in both the Mobile and Mobility Sector along with the broader Technology Trends Sector.  While the 4-year trend chart looks extremely strong, momentum has not recovered since Apple made its initial announcement in the first half of 2014.  CUME growth is well above the driverless car rate, indicating that the smartwatch trend has achieved the 88 media rating at a faster rate.

But back to driverless car.

It’s been pretty well documented in the media, but the underlying technology is already arriving in instalments as carmakers introduce sophisticated “assisted driving” features as options, even on mass-market models. European buyers of the Ford Focus, a mid-sized car, can now leave it to drive itself and maintain a safe distance in steady traffic. The car can measure a parking space and steer itself into it. It reads road signs and admonishes the driver if he breaks the speed limit. Such gadgetry also increasingly makes decisions on the driver’s behalf and overrules him in an emergency, for instance, braking to avoid a crash.

A new study by the World Health Organisation shows that such accidents kill a shocking 1.24m people a year worldwide.

There are huge implications to auto manufacturers. As car users do less driving and spend more time as passengers, they will also become less aware of how well a car performs, which is currently a big selling point. Stefano Aversa of AlixPartners worries that cars will become commoditised, rather like dishwashers. Makers may have to change their marketing to put more emphasis on styling, interior comfort and brand.

So back to the original question.

The smartwatch storyline and supporting trend is more across all media segments at 88 points versus 74 for driverless cars.  Long-term growth rates are relatively the same with smartwatches gaining a little edge over driverless car storylines.  Our full dashboards interface provides more granular comparisons by media segments, i.e. social versus traditional media, consumer publications versus trade/business media outlets, etc.  But overall, both trends are experiencing envious media trajectories and a 4-year run for both topics is inspiring.

With that said.  I haven’t seen either of these two technologies in my Portland neighborhood – yet.

Paul