Four years ago, there wasn’t a single car company present at the Las Vegas tech fest that is the Consumer Electronic Show (CES). This year, there was 165,000 square feet of space dedicated to the connected car and 11 car companies were present—showcasing their latest technological innovations.
The self-driving car is not a new thought. Four years ago, Google co-founder, Sergey Brin, committed to having one on the road in 2017 and Nissan Chairman & CEO, Carlos Ghosn, made a similar statement a year later promising to have a production ready vehicle in showrooms by 2020. But despite this, the plethora of autonomous car tech keeps on flowing with every automotive manufacturer demonstrating either the impact it will have on future cars, or showcasing the technology that is available in its vehicles today.
With its F015 concept car, Mercedes-Benz eluded to how cars will move from simply being a means of getting from point A to point B to moving spaces more akin to a lounge on wheels than an actual car. Front seats that rotate to face the back seats provide that experience. The journey will truly become the destination in the eyes of the engineers from Stuttgart. And this kind of advancement is not restricted to passenger cars as Mercedes demonstrated last September when it launched its Truck 2025, a self-driving truck with a cab that looks more like a high-end, Scandinavian-inspired office than the cockpit of today’s 18 wheelers.
Audi fitted an A7 with Audi Piloted Drive and had the car, Jack as its known, drove itself and its occupants from Palo Alto, California to Las Vegas, Nevada for CES. It apparently worked seamlessly, but one of the journalists who accompanied Jack felt that once you stopped marveling at its technological prowess, you quickly moved to boredom. Who wants to sit watching a car drive itself along endless highways facing the steering wheel? Perhaps Mercedes is on to something with its swivel seats.
Ford and BMW were more keen to demonstrate the added benefits of self-driving cars, showing how parking hassles may become a thing of the past. BMW’s i3 offers a $1,000 Parking Package that, using ultrasonic sensors, will not only find a parking spot, but will also maneuver you into it with as little as 22 inches to spare. Ford, too, will leverage the bevvy of onboard cameras on its future cars to scan the road around it for open parking spaces, uploading that information to the cloud and then any Ford driver can tap into the information to find an elusive spot in which to park.
Not only are cars themselves becoming laden with technology, but they are also spawning an entire industry of accouterment that enables you to interact with your car—or interact with the rest of the world from within your car. Smart watches that allow you to start your car remotely, remind you of where you parked it or check its battery range (assuming you are driving a Tesla Model S). Audi has recognized that the traditional car interface is a bit DOS-like in a world of rich and beautiful tablet apps and smartphones. So, in conjunction with visual computing technology leader Nvidia, Audi is not only creating gesture controlled, 3D virtual cockpits, but it is also allowing you to take the “screen” out of the car and use it like an iPad—for screening the movies you downloaded while on the road.
And it’s not just the auto manufacturers who are jumping on the car tech bandwagon. With the car being just another connected gadget in the Internet of Things, plenty of other brands are seizing the opportunity to become a part of consumers’ Mecosystems. AT&T is partnering with Samsung, Ericsson, Accenture and more to hone its connected car offering knowing that, according to ABI.com, 60 percent of new cars will be connected through mobile technology by 2017. And chip manufacturers like Qualcomm are rushing to power the media streaming, Wi-Fi hot spot generating, 3D navigating intelligent devices that our cars are fast becoming.
So what does this all mean from a brand perspective? Well, for starters, car companies need to recognize that they are fast becoming viewed as technology devices and not just modes of transport. Customers will, therefore, be judging their style and innovation credentials not simply by the cut of their B-pillar and the smoothness of their torque curve, but by their UX design and the seamlessness of their device integration.
It also means that the choice of any given car brand will increasingly be driven by a broader set of customer experience criteria—far more than simply the quality and comfort of the car and the thrill of the drive. The quality of tech support, the availability of content, and the quality of the interface on remote devices that are providing access to your car will all become important attributes in the overall brand experience.
Given this shift to be more of an experience brand than simply a product brand, car companies are going to have to work harder than ever to ensure a seamless customer experience across this myriad of touchpoints. From the look of your app, to the interface on your smart watch, the brand will need to look, behave and sound consistent.
The other consequence of offering services and experiences is that the master brand becomes increasingly important. And that also means that the brand proposition has to be able to flex beyond the driving experience. How does the Ultimate Driving Machine, for example, provide content to its owners on bespoke tablets?
And finally, we live in a world where consumers have an expectation that their experiences with brands will be tailored to their individual needs. How, therefore, can car companies capture the knowledge they have of their customers and use it to offer them what they want, when they want it and where they want it? Remember the choices and decisions consumers previously made on a website, in an app, at a dealership, on a smart phone, or on a tech service call will provide plenty of headaches—and plenty of opportunities—for the big data managers from Yokohama to Detroit.
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