What do consumers want from the car of the future?

Regardless of the technology being integrated, it needs to work without fail. Otherwise, new users may be put off for good. By Freddie Holmes

Attracting new car buyers used to be a fairly straightforward task: the vehicle must look good, drive well and be comfortable to ride in.

Today, those factors remain but for many consumers, the traditional considerations are no longer important. Instead, characteristics such as a quiet, smooth ride and a high level of advanced in-cabin tech are being sought after more than ever. Automakers have a tough time ahead in meeting such a wide range of demands.

To address the issue, a panel of industry experts convened at M:bility | California, a two-day event hosted by Automotive World, to figure out what consumers want—and need—from the vehicle of the future.

Automakers and start-ups alike have poured money into connected, autonomous, shared and electric technologies (CASE) on the basis that, with urbanisation taking over, consumers may not wish to own a gasoline-powered car with a basic radio anymore. It is a big bet that has taken time to show any real returns as yet.

“One of our focuses has been how these companies can take the technologies and investments they’ve made over the last five years or so, and achieve scale and profitability,” observed Drew Bailey, Director Industry X Consulting at Accenture. “We are at a unique time within the mobility realm where people are very unsure who the winners and losers will be, and exactly how those organisations can become profitable.”

Automation

Vehicle automation has rightly captured much of the industry’s attention, with wide-ranging implications for safety and accessibility. It has seen various billion-dollar deals go through in an effort to get ahead of the competition and crack the challenge of a self-driving vehicle. But what do prospective riders really want?

People really just want a personal space where they can relax, with a comfortable setting where they can disconnect

Bailey’s team at Accenture recently performed a study that interviewed 10,000 people across the globe to understand how consumers expect vehicle automation to impact their overall mobility experience. “We wanted to find out what the impact would be for traditional automakers, cities and end users,” he explained. An interesting finding was that with the advent of autonomous driving and shared mobility, brand relevance will become far less important. Premium manufacturers may continue to carry weight in this sense, but for mass-market brands that badge at the front may no longer be of interest.

Looking further ahead into the future, there are good signs for fully autonomous vehicles that allow passengers to sit back, relax, and even have a nap. The study showed that many consumers have considered moving to the outskirts of a city, rather than staying central. That would mean a longer commute, but many are open to the idea of being shuttled in and out by a driverless vehicle. The appeal is further influenced by the idea of wafting to work in a low-stress environment. “People really just want a personal space where they can relax, with a comfortable setting where they can disconnect,” said Bailey.

Shared

Car-hire companies have a good grounding in the shared mobility space. For decades, they have learned what customers want from a vehicle that they may only have access to for a week, or even just a day or two. Reliability, comfort and ease of use are key requirements for any shared vehicle, and that includes future robo-taxi services.

“At Avis we buy over 185,000 new cars every year in the US, and as it relates to new controls within the vehicle, we are a very early adopter of technology,” said Jeff Kaelin, Vice President Product Development at Avis Budget Group. “We serve a strange role: we are a bit of an educator, because many times, the consumer’s first interaction with a new technology is in the rental environment. We sometimes get mixed results.”

Many times, the consumer’s first interaction with a new technology is in the rental environment

Kaelin recalls some consumers being confused by a Mercedes-Benz seat massage function, for example, which initially felt like the car had driven over rough tarmac at the edge of the road. The key issue is that a lack of standardisation across vehicles can make new technologies difficult to use. “When we think about what the customer wants from the vehicle of the future, a lot of the time the answer is: ‘I just want the car that I have at home’, because they know how everything works.”

Customers may not be happy if a feature malfunctions even as rarely as once every ten times it is activated, noted Kilian von Neumann-Cosel, Director of Business Development at Brose North America. “It can be very frustrating,” he observed. Even with a safety-focussed driver assistance function, if there is a minor malfunction or it does not perform as expected, “the consumer may even decide to stop using it forever.”

Connectivity

Much of the new technology available in the car will not be in the form of hardware. In fact, it may not even use software that is installed directly in the vehicle itself.

When features are really easy to find and use, customers will continue to use them

Katie McMahon, General Manager and Vice President of SoundHound Inc., explained that many functions will be cloud-based, and that adds pressure on the vehicle’s level of connectivity. “If I’m in a tunnel, I may not be able to connect to the cloud,” she pointed out. “This raises this issue of fallibility in the product experience. Users need to understand what is connected and where the break points are.”

The same issue applies to other in-cabin technologies, such as voice recognition. This is designed to allow passengers to make casual conversation with the vehicle and remove the need for drivers to control things manually. However, there is no margin for error here, explained Adam Emfield, Senior Manager of User Experience, Nuance.

“We know how buttons work—they are accessible to someone new in the vehicle, such as if they have rented the car for the first time,” he said. “If voice technology works it is great, but if a new user comes in and stumbles, that becomes a problem. When features are really easy to find and use, customers will continue to use them.”

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