I’ve always loved cars. An immaculate vintage Porsche, the astonishing Bugatti Veyron and the improbable Mercedes G-Wagon would all make it into my fantasy garage. These cars are just such wonderful objects – more like art clothed in sheet metal than convenient means of getting from A to B.
However, it is fair to say that such exotic creations are irrelevant to most people’s daily driving experience. To prove the point I’d like to tell you about a recent visit I made to an anonymous airport car rental desk. The nice lady from Avis offered me the choice of an Audi, a Mercedes or a BMW. All great cars I hear you say – and it’s true, they are. But then an odd realization dawned. I realized that I was almost completely indifferent between those brands and chose the Mercedes simply because I knew for sure that I would be able to stream my music via Bluetooth. So all that stuff carmakers spend billions perfecting – performance, handling, styling, interior quality – none of this made an impact on my decision at all. I knew they were all great in those respects.
While cars are still very much seen as status objects in emerging markets like China and Brazil, the automobile has finally come of age in the West. We tend not to use our cars to show the world who we are any more – who cares about what the guy we pass on the street thinks when any of us could build a million strong following on Twitter. Today we want our cars to do something very different. We want them to fit into our lives, to make it better and to play nice with all our other devices – of which our car is just one. The modern automobile is already an incredibly sophisticated bundle of interfaces, sensors, cameras, processors and mechanics. Increasingly we are going to see this put to use in a way that transforms the mobility experience. The car’s ability to interact with its environment, use information intelligently, interface with our other devices and anticipate our needs means our cars are about to try and make the same leap the phone did in going from communication device to indispensible life-tool.
Going back to that anonymous airport rental desk, I made my choice based on software, even most cars still try to seduce me with hardware. Think about it for a moment; the other digital devices in my life constantly provide me with new, exciting experiences that make my life better, easier and more fun. However, carmakers expect me to commit to a three-year lease on a car that will only get older, scruffier and less reliable while I potentially wait eight years between model cycles. Eight years! They still talk cylinders, horsepower, all-wheel drive and zero-percent-down; but what I really want to know is why my life is going to be better if this car is part of it.
Carmakers have spent over a century expressing their brand idea through what the car looks and feels like, but this is only one small part of the puzzle. The leap towards a new digital mobility paradigm leads us to a fundamental brand question that has yet to be answered: How do carmakers make their brand idea live across many different, unfamiliar touch-points – through the interfaces, services and experiences they create within and beyond the car. What will Mercedes feel like on my smartphone? How will Infiniti anticipate and ease the stress of my commute? How will BMW help me be more productive? The car is just the platform, what carmakers need to do now is show how they are going to enrich people’s lives.
But what happened to the fantasy garage I hear you say? Well, there are many of us who still lust after automotive exotica in the same way one might lust after any other super-luxury item. But when it comes to inviting a car into our lives every day, we want it to be as easy and life enriching as when we bought our first smartphone or tablet. Advanced in-car connectivity, innovative user interfaces and even cars to drive themselves are all trundling down the conveyer. However, one thing we learned from the PC era is that technology alone is not enough. Someone has to take that technology and, guided by a strong brand idea, shape it into an intuitive, human experience that you couldn’t imagine living without.