How the brand badge could come second to a car’s tech pack

Back then, a clutch of technologies advanced to the stage where the online experience became available for anyone with a computer and a phone line. The wired automobile is at a similar point, with new cars from every big manufacturer offering a raft of connected features, even in the more budget price categories.

The two eras are also similar in that the early years of the connected car are still wide open for ‘The Next Big Thing(s)’. Sure, famous tech incumbents like Apple and Google have their own auto products but there are also a great many telematics specialists vying to be major players… just as then-upstarts like Amazon waged war against all other retail competitors.

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to say which company will make its mark and with what kind of technology. But even at this early stage, we can ascertain a few principles telematics service providers and OEMs might do very well to follow – gleaned from the market’s experts and what’s been a hit with consumers thus far in the connected car race.

One big differentiator will almost certainly be uniqueness. What is going to set apart a piece of technology or a system used in a car will be how different it is from the competition? And this doesn’t have to mean a product or service created fresh in the skunk works, it can be something that pulls in existing technology but configures it in a new, useful way.

One intriguing example is Roam, a system currently being developed by Volvo. Drivers of a Volvo connected car armed with the feature would be able to order groceries and other goods through their system. They could then opt to have the goods delivered right to the car, with a delivery service operating  a one-time digital key to gain access and deposit the purchases inside. Car owners would be able to track when the car is opened and subsequently locked again after the delivery.

Roam could be seen as a fresh and practical extension of existing technology. It’s also a feature that should be a hit; according to Volvo, when it pilot-tested the programme to 100 volunteers, 86% of them indicated that it saved them time.

A feature like Roam points to another differentiator: practicality. Whiz-bang technology is all well and good, and it’s nice to have a slick set of features available at the touch of a fingertip on the central display. But, ultimately, the most useful and powerful features drivers will demand are those that make their lives easier.

A good recent example of this is BMW’s Park Assistant, which became available not long ago as a feature set in the company’s i3 electric car. Using internal systems to help plant a car in a space is nothing new but BMW has a fully automated option that can even sniff out appropriate parking spots. The system is activated, alerts the driver via the display when a space is found then, with the push of a button, the car settles itself into the spot.

Every driver, it’s fair to generalise, has struggled at some point with wrestling a car into a tight parallel parking spot. BMW’s system, then, has automatic and enormous potential appeal. As such, it very easily has the potential to be a deciding factor in a consumer’s choice between EV models. Wouldn’t you opt for the one that does the parking for you, even if it cost a little extra?

As cool as offerings like Roam or Parking Assistant are, however, no single feature is going to ‘Wow’ consumers away from rival car models. TSPs and OEMs will have to differentiate themselves by – somewhat paradoxically – choosing the right partner or partners for their solutions. Sure, we appreciate the help with parking, and that in-car delivery feature is a right boon, but what about navigation, infotainment, keyless entry, etc. etc. etc.? How about tying it all together in a well built, intuitive, and fast smart device app? Building a truly useful and attractive connected car feature set is the work of many hands, not just of a single group of boffins in a lab. The winners in this game will be the ones who can, successfully, either integrate their feature into a raft of disparate technologies and protocols, or those who can best aggregate same into a robust solution. Also, just like car models and smart phones, not all manufacturers are created equal – partnerships should be mutually beneficial, in both technological and business terms, and be established for the long term.

It’s hard not to get excited about the future of the connected car. We’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of technological capabilities, not to mention the vast business opportunities that are revving up right in front of us. But many entities want to win this contest; ultimately, the victors are sure to be those who cleverly, strategically, and effectively distinguish themselves in some way.

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