November 30, 2017 10:45 AM, EST

BP’s New Existential Question: How to Advertise to a Machine

Simon Dawson/Bloomberg News

The anticipated proliferation of driverless cars will bring a brand new problem for the world’s biggest oil companies — how to advertise to a machine.

BP Plc needs to figure out how it will draw cars run by computers to its fuel stations, said David Eyton, the company’s head of technology.

“That is the problem we’re all trying to think about, goodness gracious me, if you’re not driving the car, how is that car going to decide where it goes?,” Eyton said in an interview in London. “That matters if you’re supplying that car with energy.”

The comments underscore the speed at which the biggest oil companies are having to reassess their markets as technologies from electric driverless cars to hydraulic fracking upend energy markets. The industry already is facing existential questions over the future of diesel fuel after a scandal over cheating on emissions tests, and there’s a threat that plug-in cars eat away at demand for gasoline.

Seeking to get ahead of change, companies including Royal Dutch Shell Plc have signed deals with automakers to expand their electric vehicle offerings and backed hydrogen fuel-cell technology.

BP has not made any significant investments in car charging to date, but it’s “studying very carefully the full breadth of possible ways of participating in the electrification of transport,” Eyton said. Some cars with traditional engines are likely to be driven by machines in the coming decades, and those motors will need to refuel somewhere.

“If I was a competitor and I had a cozy relationship with a car company, I would pre-program it to always go to that company,” he said. “Then we would be sitting there thinking, why is nobody turning up now?”

Some of the world’s biggest technology companies, from Google parent Alphabet Inc. to Uber Technologies Inc., are investing in autonomous vehicles. Earlier this month, Alphabet’s Waymo division said self-driving trucks and ride-sharing services might be among the first autonomous vehicles to appear.

Tesla Inc.’s electric cars come with an Autopilot setting, which assists a human driver in guiding the vehicle in an increasing number of situations. The company’s billionaire owner, Elon Musk, said in May that fully autonomous driving may be about two years away.

Eyton said BP is having discussions with tech companies. He didn’t give more details.