The Future of Auto Tech

cars and technologyA whole nine months after purchasing my last car, I decided to rebel against my Midwestern sensibilities and the code of conduct that drives them, and try the park assist feature that had so tempted me for the better part of the year. We Midwesterners are a proud people, you see. And the art of parallel parking is something to be mastered. We’ll park our cars ourselves, thank you.

I found a “Goldilocks space” (not so small as to make the maneuver more uncomfortable than it already was and not so large as to make it … well, simply pulling alongside a curb), took a deep breath, shifted into reverse, and let the car do what it would with the task. As I eased my foot off the brake and turned myself into a passenger, the technophile in me said, “This is very cool.” Some other voice in my head—perhaps the one actually paying attention—though, screamed as the car moved perilously deeper into the space, “Fool! The self-park feature isn’t engaged! You’re just rolling under idle toward that very shiny, $90,000 car behind you!”

Okay, so score one for the importance of the owner’s manual … and reading it. Besides the silly and nearly costly mistake, this experience is emblematic of the challenge faced by marketers at automaker brands: how to engender consumer trust in automobiles and the paradigm-shifting technologies associated therewith—in all their utility, reliability, perceived value, etc.

So I thought I might have been engaging the future when I clicked that park assist button (er, when I thought I clicked that park assist button). Between that and playing Spotify over my Bluetooth-connected phone, I was practically George Jetson, right? The fact is that the automotive technology development curve is about to push our pedal to the metal … maybe. We’re seeing semi-autonomous drive modes in production models now (e.g., Tesla) and auto brands have invested significantly in R&D to put fully self-driving production models on the road as early as 2017 (e.g., Volvo’s direction). And our cars’ sound/entertainment system is rapidly becoming just another Wi-Fi enabled platform. It may not be long before we’re zipping around in mostly autonomous cars, enjoying a user experience as we would our living room sofa or business-class plane seat.

So why the “maybe” above? Unremitting march of progress and all, the companion to the technology development arc is the user adoption arc. And as the automakers’ designers and engineers bring these amazing concepts to the market, their marketers are challenged with bringing consumers to the point of being compelled to comfortably buy and use them.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that when discussing trust, and in the wake of scandals in the automotive vertical (e.g., VW’s gaming of emission tests; the massive, multi-brand recall of Takata’s potentially deadly airbags; a major ignition issue with the Chevy Cobalt; and sudden unintended acceleration across a number of brands), automotive marketers have focused on how current and prospective owners use the technology baked into the cars on the road now and those soon rolling off factory lines. The important issues are how consumers value what the car does, whether they understand how to engage those features and functions, and whether they trust that the car will safely and reliably do whatever it should.

Technological innovation in cars isn’t new. Power steering was invented in 1925, iterations of cruise control were invented and popularly introduced during the late ’40s and ’50s, and, yes, park assist tech is more than a decade old now. At each point, there was some degree of consumer resistance. But I submit that we’re now at a major inflection point. The big step happens as we take our hands off the wheel and let the car be another living space, where we relinquish driving responsibilities and commit our senses to other pastimes.

The major challenge for marketers, who already must create and manage seamless consumer experiences across multiple tiers (brand, regional sales, dealers), multiple channels and a very long lifecycle, is to message to sensibilities about the tremendously advanced technologies appearing in cars. Building trust by waging effective consumer relationship management has always been about delivering messages that are personalized, timely and relevant, throughout the entire consumer journey (“from Leads to Loyalty,” as expressed by our HackerAgency motto). Now those messages must be concerned with this quantum leap forward in the bells and whistles department, and not just to explain the value to the consumer, but also to mete out the appropriate degree of assurance around the tech’s use.

Even considering the creep factor, I’d probably appreciate it if, in the near future, my car’s manufacturer was able to send me suggestions on a video to watch while my car drove me to work. For now, I’d even take a video on how to properly engage the park assist function.

It’s certainly an exciting time to be in the automotive CRM space. There are plenty of challenges imposed—and associated with these is a wonderful set of opportunities.