When our lives and cars connect

The majority of floor space in this year’s massive North Hall at CES is dedicated to automobile makers or companies that supply parts and solutions for our cars. This year, the loudest conversation by far is about autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars are certain to provide the biggest change to transportation since the invention of the automobile itself. But as everyone looks to our Blade Runner future, let’s take a peek at what’s new now. What is happening between us and our cars as we approach the last few years of the steering wheel? What does this say about how we will connect with the vehicles of the future? And what should marketers think about as the transition happens?

As recently as 20 years ago, the interface with cars was a combination of analog gauges and a separate radio device. Today, most cars provide a fully-digital, seemingly integrated interface that manages the car and its critical functions as well as vastly improves infotainment for navigation, music, video, and telephone connectivity.

Additionally, many of these functions can be controlled by voice, just like our phones and homes. One big challenge is that the critical functions of vehicles are under strict regulations by the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). As a result, in most vehicles, the car controls and the infotainment remain two distinct systems. Auto manufacturers are hesitant to open that part of the interface given the complexity of meeting safety regulations. I spoke with a vendor whose company’s primary purpose is to help run these two distinct systems on a single processor. While this does potentially present nice opportunities for a seamless user experience between car and infotainment, the vendor was quick to reflect that this integration is mostly about saving OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) costs from having two processors.

Regardless, it is clear that the claim to the dominant auto OS is yet to be determined. Apple and Android own our phones. Amazon and Google own our homes. Who will own our cars?

One thing is clear: many companies want this role given the importance of software to autonomous vehicles that communicate with passengers, other vehicles, and emerging smart cities. Samsung’s acquisition of Harmon is a big sign about what might be next. The truth is, given the growing complexity of car functions, most manufacturers are continuing to rely on closed, proprietary systems in their vehicles with integration points for consumers’ other key personal technologies.

Hyundai Mobis
The world’s sixth largest automobile parts supplier used its impressive CES footage this year to demonstrate its leadership to develop passenger interfaces for future cars. The goal of its concept is “A car that understands me.” These integrated features called “Pleasant Life”, allow central passenger control over navigation, climate, entertainment, and integration with smart phone and home features. This solution still lacks any semblance of a single or dominant automotive operating system.

Mercedes Benz
Mercedes is launching an all-new customer interface (MBUX), which will be available in the forthcoming A Class vehicles. This all-new user experience provides a wide screen integrated instrument cluster and heads up display. Mercedes confirmed that the OS for this system is proprietary with obvious integrations with Apple and Android infotainment offerings. What is particularly interesting here is the integration with smart watches and more importantly, Google Home and Alexa. For now, the integration with home is one way – that is, you can use voice control via your preferred home device to operate the mobile features of your Mercedes like remote start, lock, and climate management. There is still no integral ability to manage your home from the car, but I am told this is coming soon.

Nissan Intelligent Mobility
The last presenter worth noting is Nissan. While it feels mostly like a gimmick, Nissan did reveal their Intelligent Mobility platform, which claims to use drivers’ brain waves to help the vehicle adapt and respond. Part toy and part Minority Report, this system requires wearing a quasi-helmet while driving to work. This alone will keep this solution from going mainstream, but is Nissan onto something that perhaps hints that the OS of the future car is no OS at all? Will we safely be able to manage and control our cars simply by allowing our brains to do the work? Again, it seems far-fetched and unlikely, but this is another reflection that ultimately winners in the auto space will have to include how users connect with their lives to succeed.

What does it all mean?
For automakers, it’s clear that as cars become more software dependent, the user interface becomes a more critical component. Frankly, just like Apple’s iOS and Android, car brands will be preferred based on how the systems connect with their human owners. Marketing these interfaces will be an important part of how vehicle stories are told to prospects.

For marketers in other categories, it is critical to keep an eye on the automobile interface. As drivers are less needed in the cockpit, captive audiences are prime targets for messages and offers from brands. Imagine having access to a large-screen video device in a vehicle with a family we’ve identified and that we know is headed to the mall. To take advantage of these exciting opportunities, the content we deliver will need to be more relevant, more personal, and more engaging than ever before.

Author: Robert Guay, EVP/MD DigitasLBi Boston and Detroit