Gone are the days where a car's value is staked on horsepower and mechanics alone.
While those remain important, consumers are increasingly focused on software updates, wireless connectivity and digital user interfaces.
At the same time, a future in which autonomous vehicles become the norm is prompting brands to rethink the elements that make up an ideal user experience.
When a car drives itself, what's left for passengers to engage with? Entertainment becomes more important.
Brands are wondering: Do you have to partner with a streaming service? Do you become an entertainment brand as much as an automotive brand?
We are still years away from fully autonomous cars. But it's a multiyear timeline, and brands want to be ready by the time cars can perform.
Companies such as Google are laying the groundwork with platforms like Android Auto, a version of its mobile operating system designed for use in the car.
Just like how the iPhone revolutionized our concept of what a mobile phone can do, digital dashboards and new user interfaces have the potential to redefine how we engage with automobiles -- like a speedometer that turns red when you are speeding.
I envision deep customization opportunities through content packs. Consider the personalization of sound design for electric engines, buttons and functions that you could download like a mobile ringtone, which could become a huge new channel for revenue.
Building direct, digital relationships
Content channels like those mentioned above can solve a critical challenge for automakers: capturing consumer data.
Dealerships commonly own the relationship with consumers, but brands now aim to develop stronger customer relationships of their own, whether through direct-to-customer (D2C) offerings or by offering digital experiences.
Such experiences can profoundly transform brand-consumer relationships by supporting new customer behaviors.
We have seen a growing use of digital tools, especially by women and people of color who prefer digital tools because they find dealerships talk down to them or don't take them as seriously. So while in-person activities like test drives remain important for many, there's a growing demand for virtualizing the dealership experience.
In addition to providing a more comfortable experience, direct, digital relationships can enable greater customization.
Consumers are now more willing to wait for a car to be delivered that meets their exact needs rather than pick one up from a lot on the same day.
While made-to-order cars are a staple for luxury automakers, brands such as Ford are moving toward the model to support the change in buying behavior.
This also helps brands that have been suffering from chip shortages, want a more direct relationship with consumers and no longer want their cars sitting unused in car lots.
In exploring how digital platforms can help consumers find the right car for them, we prototyped an Alexa-based assistant that learns users' specific needs through a simple question-and-answer format. It may ask whether you need a car for your commute, or the size of your family.
Responses are measured against a database of 2,000 cars from 42 different brands, organized using machine learning and computer vision. The assistant is a contrast to complex search engines or configurators and is much more about the personal lifestyle that suits you.
Cultivating online community
As automakers reconsider the shifting definition of what it means to own a car, there is a growing focus on supporting owners by building community.
Tesla has organized local chapters of its Tesla Owners Club in which owners share knowledge or build advocacy for the brand, for example.
Brands might take inspiration from community-minded platforms already on the market. Look at the Waze app.
Popular for GPS function, there are a lot of attempts it makes to prompt interactivity between drivers, whether it's reporting police activity, road closures, traffic and more.
Brands can similarly adopt a community-oriented role using driver data they pick up, whether through digital experiences or even on the road. In fact, vehicle-to-vehicle communication is already being explored to increase driver safety.
Customizable digital dashboards, in-cabin entertainment, online communities -- auto brands may begin to look a lot more like content brands in the future.
Not only does an increased focus on content lay the foundation for the fully autonomous passenger experience. It can also help brands hold onto consumer interest in the months (or sometimes years) that they wait for their custom configuration to be made -- an increased concern with supply chain issues and longer wait times imposed by the pandemic.
But perhaps more importantly, digital content and experiences will help them better understand consumers and their needs, with data and insights steering their business in the right direction for years to come.