Getting inside the mind of the telematics consumer

Getting inside the mind of the telematics consumer

Consumers today use smartphones, laptops, and tablets to manage more and more aspects of their daily lives. Unsurprisingly, they don’t want to abandon those Web capabilities when they jump into their cars. But with tech capabilities proliferating exponentially, the challenge confronting auto and telematics companies is sussing out what consumers really do want.

Companies are looking beyond anecdotal evidence, mining survey data compiled by market research firms like Harris Interactive as well their own internal surveys for answers. Harris conducted its latest benchmark study, the 2010 Autotechcast, in April 2010, generating results that provide insights into consumer technology preferences to OEMs and Tier 1, 2, and 3 suppliers.

“In some ways, you have to go with your own gut instinct,” says Rick Kreifeldt, vice president, global automotive research and innovation, Harman International. The company doesn’t rely only on surveys of US and European consumers, but also bases its development decisions on “what we’re hearing from car makers and what they’re starting to put through in terms of requests for interest (RFIs) and requests for quotation (RFQs). The real challenge everyone’s grappling with is how fast Internet services are changing. How do we deal with changes in the landscape, bringing on new services and keeping it fresh?”

The need for navigation

Current survey data show consumer preferences coalescing around one basic theme. “Overwhelmingly they’ll say, ‘I need things that can help me go from point A to point B in a safe, efficient manner,’” says Partha Goswami, technology manager, connected vehicle and infotainment, GM. Technological innovation aside, consumers recognize “at the end of the day, a car is a device for transportation.”

This basic theme translates into a clear priority for navigational apps, broadly defined. “When asked which applications consumers would like to see in a connected vehicle in the 2010 Harris Autotechcast, the top responses were navigation, live traffic downloads, and weather,” notes Goswami. “Features like social networking apps, browsing, and online shopping were lower on the list.” Internal GM data accord with the Autotechcast results. For Harman, “the big thing right now is switching to an interactive experience,” Kreifeldt believes. “That’s going to be a growing trend, and it applies to navigation as well.” (For more on navigation, see ‘Navigation 3.0: What’s next for nav’.)

“The whole notion of navigation is changing as we are getting better information technology,” observes Goswami. This is expanding to include a demand for cloud-connected location-based services (LBS) and point of interest (POI) capabilities, potentially “mashed up with traditional mapping and routing applications.” The industry is only going to get greener, Kreifeldt observes, so “green navigation” incorporating learning systems and range management (for electric vehicles) will become more important. (For more on green navigation, see ‘Green telematics: The eco-driving opportunity’.)

The connected generation

Slicing and dicing survey data according to demographics reveals an important generational difference. Younger consumers have a bias for more social networking-centric tools in the car.” Companies are responding, since although younger consumers are a small minority now, “they’re the future car buyers of tomorrow, and we need to pay attention to them,” says Goswami. (For more on younger consumers, see ‘Telematics and Generation Y: Making the car an iPhone on wheels’.)

But cars have unique needs for browsers, Goswami notes, and the whole look and feel must be customized to meet the specific brand of vehicles. Harman has extensive experience in developing browsers for connected cars. “Right now, we’re making a big push for HTML5,” says Kreifeldt, “and we see that as a big part of our strategy for providing upgradability to the head unit itself,” through which the driver experiences Harman’s infotainment capability. (For more on HTML5, see Telematics and the next-generation Web; click here to hear a podcast with Rick Kreifeldt.)

Safety concerns

In the litigious US environment, automakers have often found themselves targets of lawsuits. So, like most other potential deep-pocketed defendants, they’re well attuned to safety concerns. One priority is to implement these services in cars in ways that don’t encourage driver distraction. Says Goswami: “Our human brain is not wired to do several things at the same time, without some degradation in each.”

Distracted driving isn’t just an abstract concept; it costs lives. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that in 2009, about 5,500 people died, and approximately a half million were injured, in accidents involving a distracted driver; these accounted for 16 percent of overall traffic fatalities that year. Voice-activated systems might reduce these accident rates, since the basic laptop- or smartphone keyboard-controlled technology is especially dangerous in a car. Voice-activated systems can be programmed once, and drivers can thereafter access the function by voice indefinitely, thereby minimizing distraction.

The 2010 Autotechcast showed that consumers are warming to this approach; 35% would be likely to adopt voice-activated systems in their vehicles, up from 27% in 2009, to control cell phones, audio, climate control, and navigation systems. But Goswami emphasizes this is not a complete solution. “It’s not about your fingers,” he says. “It’s about your brain. [Drivers need to have,] hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, mind on driving.” These same rules do not necessarily apply to rear-seat passengers, and their preferences open up options for offering a wider range of consumer electronics technology. (For more on distracted driving, see ‘Driver distraction: The battle over in-car apps’ and ‘Why telematics is the answer to distracted driving’; fore more on voice, see ‘Telematics and speech recognition: Finally ready for prime time?’.)

“Everything we do in the car could potentially compromise our driving,” says Goswami. “As we’re adding more capabilities, we need to figure out when you’re crossing the threshold” to unsafe driving. Survey results offer little guidance on this score.

Jerri-Lynn Scofield is a regular contributor to TU.

For all the latest telematics trends, join the sector’s thought leaders at Telematics Detroit 2011 in Novi, MI on June 8 and 9.

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