Q&A: Personalizing the connected car experience

Stephen Surhigh is Compuware’s global lead responsible for sales and delivery of products/services to auto manufacturers and tier 1 suppliers. His job includes sales, global P&L management and leading more than 300 consultants providing solutions to automotive clients in United States, China, Poland and India.

He previously built outsourcing engagements between a technology service provider and a number of Forbes Global 2000 companies, including UPS, HP, Microsoft, Apple, Coca-Cola and Miller Brewing. As a consultant for what was then Coopers & Lybrand, Surhigh helped technology-based companies improve business performance through effective project management and capital investment.

He spoke to TU’s Jan Stojaspal about the growing need to personalize the connected car experience and possibilities for using the head unit to deliver ads.

More and more OEMs are enabling their head units to run apps, much in the same way tablets and smartphones already do. This creates new opportunities for personalization of the connected car experience. What role does Compuware play?

We function as a full-service systems integrator across both infotainment and telematics within the vehicle. Whether it’s developing apps that reside on the head unit, or whether it’s doing some of the communication protocols that allow the vehicle to talk to the cloud or some specific application, we make sure all the pieces fit together.

Is it more important to deliver a personalized connected experience than before? Why?

It’s really become a differentiating factor, a way for each of the manufacturers to try to position their vehicles to their target markets. If you look at how the OEMs have tried to differentiate themselves, design and horsepower have always been key components of how they looked to position specific vehicles.

Now, more and more, the technology is becoming a differentiating factor, and you now see, for example, CNET and Wired going to auto shows to report on what’s the latest and greatest announcement that manufacturers have about the electronics side of the vehicle. Similarly, all the manufacturers are going to the consumer electronics shows to promote the technologies.

What sort of options are available when it comes to personalizing the connected vehicle?

If you compare what is available in, say, a tablet device versus a head unit, obviously with the tablets you have a lot flexibility and a lot of control over personalization. Within the head unit, concerns around distracted driving are limiting what’s possible.

But technically you have the same ability to configure a head unit as you would with a tablet. And in a lot of cases, if you look at the guts of how these things are set up, they are running off very similar platforms, from a software stack perspective.

For example, a lot of work is being done by the streaming media companies to enable users to share their web-based profiles in the vehicle. It parallels somewhat with what you see with some of the mobile devices, and how they are pulling it together. But, again, the big focus is on how to do it in a way where the driver can stay engaged in keeping the vehicle on the road.

(For more on personalizing the connected vehicle, see Content and Apps for Automotive Europe: Beyond the app storeThe making of a social car, part I and The making of a social car, part II.)

Consumer electronics clearly have a big impact. Does their influence also bleed over to how the automotive systems are branded?

Whether it’s a powertrain system or an infotainment platform, a lot of the OEMs like to have things engineered in a way that is unique to their platform. And that goes for the content as well. They are getting involved in influencing the content that’s being brought into the vehicle, but also, if you think about the big data perspective, what you can pull off the vehicle.

Is it in the interest of the manufacturer to recognize that the rear-seat infotainment unit is being used to play Angry Birds? Does that help in terms of positioning a future purchase with that driver, with that family or with that individual? That’s the kind of thing that everybody is looking at, trying to figure out what’s possible in that realm, what can be done safely and securely and non-intrusively from a customer perspective.

What are you advising your clients on this front?  What sort of choices should the OEMs be making to really connect with the end user, the driver?

For example, different OEMs are taking different perspectives on whether the head unit could and/or should be used as a mobile billboard, so to speak, and whether you can push advertising through the head unit. From our perspective, it creates some interesting opportunities. Let’s say, the oil change light comes on, on the dash board. Certainly, at key start, you could identify local dealers, provide the potential for coupons, anything like that, whether it’s dealer touches or whatever type of experience the brand is trying to push.

It’s interesting that you are not opposed to using the head unit to deliver ads.

It’s one of those things that, from a technology perspective, is certainly doable, very doable. From a customer acceptance perspective, it probably needs to be proven. And from a distracted driving perspective, there are obviously some concerns about that. We’ll see what shakes out with that. But it’s an opportunity to potentially monetize some aspects of the content that goes through the head unit.

If we were to take vehicle personalization a step further, we would get into predictive in-vehicle applications. Is that an area you are engaged in?

Most of the work we have done up to this point has been around structured data. When it comes to some of the predictive pieces, it starts to involve unstructured data and mining unstructured data, which certainly is a possibility. But we have not seen organizations that are focused on that at this point. But as things evolve, getting into the unstructured pieces really can open up some interesting doors.

We are still talking relatively small steps. What is the grand vision?

I think it’s part of trying to manage the owner’s digital experience with the vehicle. The head unit is part of it. But it’s also the web-based pieces, the mobile device pieces, the email/SMS messaging pieces. All of that goes into how owners digitally engage with their vehicle.

From a content perspective, at least what we are hearing, the goal is to allow drivers to have a ubiquitous experience with how they receive their content, whether they are sitting in their living room, whether they are at their desk in their office, or whether they are in their vehicle.

You hear the notion of what if you start a podcast in your bedroom as you are preparing for work and pick up at the same point that you left off as you enter your vehicle. And then when you get to your office, you get the conclusion of the podcast where you left off as you turned your vehicle  off.

Jan Stojaspal is the editor of Telematics Update.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out V2V & V2I for Auto Safety USA 2013 on July 9-10 in Novi, MI, Insurance Telematics USA 2013 on September 4-5 in Chicago, Telematics Russia 2013 in September in Moscow, Telematics LATAM 2013 in September in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Telematics Japan 2013 on October 8-10 in Tokyo and Telematics Munich 2013 on November 11-12.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013The Automotive HMI Report 2013Insurance Telematics Report 2013 and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012.


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