UX is driving a driverless future for automakers

Two major disruptions are driving automotive right now: automated driving tech (AD) and ride sharing services—both of which came from outside the industry (Google and Uber). But both progressions require a deep understanding of something car companies have historically been pretty bad at: user experience.

If you’ve ever sifted through a car’s user manual trying to connect your blue tooth phone to the stereo, you understand. Car controls are notoriously terrible, often counter-intuitive or gimmicky, and become outdated within a year or two. Depending on the make or model, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed to turn the AC on when you were trying to turn the volume up on the stereo. You’re a human working with something likely designed as an afterthought to the look of the console. User experience still takes a back seat to performance in automobile features, and that needs to change.

At this year’s Auto Show in NY, industry folks remarked that these kinds of features are important to millenials, but not really to everyone else. It was dismissed as a philosophy that “your car should be more like an iPad” to some snickering in the audience.

But, actually, why shouldn’t this be the case? As we approach a future that is driverless, why shouldn’t a car just be a giant iPad with wheels? It’s the cars that most support features for ‘stuff you can do while traveling’ that will win in the driverless future. With driving taken care of, what else should we be doing?

As performance becomes less and less important, how car companies can provide better traveling experiences to their consumers will become greater differentiators in their products.

And in regard to ride sharing, it’s not that different: user experience will win the day. I’d argue that Uber established the entire ride sharing market by simply providing people with a better user experience. Being able to call a car, track it on its way, and not have to give directions to your driver are pure customer experience innovations that were implemented through smart uses of tech.

If OEMs want to make a difference in the ride sharing market, they are going to need to understand these UX dynamics and value them as much as they do engineering. This is not usually the province of 100 year-old car companies. Adding Alexa to a car is a nice start, but OEMs need to come up with UX innovations themselves, not just bolt on technology developed for other platforms.

And if auto companies are serious about the challenges ahead, they should be looking to UX design experts to help solve these problems, seeking out partners who understand user needs to evolve the right features around their customer.

That’s not to say all car companies are bad at this. Last year, Toyota announced a partnership with Getaround to create a sort of Airbnb for cars, which sounds interesting. Even if that venture flops, they’ll learn more in failure about consumer needs than they would doing nothing.

Ford’s new mission to pivot from being a car manufacturer to a “mobility provider” is moving in the right direction. Ford’s own, Sheryl Connelly, recently remarked: “At the turn of the century Ice companies thought they were selling ice, but realized what they were selling was refrigeration. We’ve come to realize what we’re selling is mobility.” This macro view from product to experience should no doubt follow with new insights into the customer experience.

The industry is going to need help to get to where it needs to go, but if they can execute these insights into features that add customer value, they will master the disruption ahead.

Gabe Garner is SVP-business planning at Firstborn

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Gabe Garner

Gabe Garner is SVP-business planning at Firstborn

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