Connected Cars Are Hard

Connected Cars Are Hard.  No really.  Very, very, very hard.  At first blush, people think it should be easy – make my vehicle systems like my cell phone, right?


There are many reasons why the connected car is much harder and more complicated than your smart phone.  I’m going to cover two reasons today – expectations and communications.

It is often said that like smart phones, the software in a car should be upgradable, that consumers are expecting their in-vehicle infotainment systems to be current and “future proof”. In reality, people hate change.

First off, people treat a car much differently than they do a phone.  They pay a lot for their cars, on average in the U.S. ~$31,252 (USA Today, September 5, 2013) or about 58 times more than the average smart phone (Forbes, September 14, 2013 – calculated from data in the article).  And like their phones, there are on-going expenses to keep your car on the road – fuel, insurance, maintenance, parking – adding up to an average of $1,820 (Consumer Reports, December 2012) a year compared to the average annual cell phone bill of $1,260 (TechHive, August 6, 2013).  This is part of the reason that people are rejecting in-vehicle infotainment systems, including navigation – they are already paying for a smartphone, why pay for the same features in a car that get out of date?  I completely understand and sympathize with the sentiment.

When people begin to part with that kind of cash, their expectations change.  People expect equipment, features, and services in their cars to simply work.  There is almost no tolerance for “upgrading” systems or “fixing bugs”.  People expect to drive their car off the dealer lot and everything work flawlessly.  If not, it should be covered by the manufacturers warranty.  And this is a huge difference between a smart phone and a car – the dealer.

The dealer is accessible and represents the product.  Sure, you can go to your local Verizon store and complain when your cell service is spotty, but do you actually expect anything to come of it?  I’ve heard it said, that if you want that dead zone investigated by the likes of AT&T, they must receive at least 6 complaints about the same spot within an hour before they will even consider sending out a technician.

Have a complaint about your car?  Drive up to any dealer and they will hear you out.  And they may even fix the problem.  And all those complaints make it right back to the automotive OEM.  They actually listen and do something about it.  If it is a “bug”, it is likely a warrantable fix – meaning the OEM has to reimburse the dealer for the work performed.  What developers fix monthly if not weekly, things like software “bugs/patches/fixes”, things developers treat as fixable code – publish first fix later – will likely cost an OEM cold harsh cash to a dealer, even if the dealer does nothing. This is obviously good reason to pause for consideration if you are an OEM and want to bring to market connected applications that are “future proof” and “up-gradable”.  Fine if you are willing to pay for all that work, absorb the liability (I’ll go into depth about product liability at a later date, that topic is a doozy), and comply with all the state and federal reporting for defects…

I was in London a few weeks ago at a connected in-vehicle infotainment conference and I listened intently as gentlemen from Aston Martin, Bentley, and MacLaren all spoke about the ultra-premium car buyers’ flat out rejection of software bugs.  I know from my years at Toyota developing, launching, and operating connected services, that is not just the ultra-premium car buyer!  People’s expectations about their cars is simply different from their phones.

It is often said that like smart phones, the software in a car should be upgradable, that consumers are expecting their in-vehicle infotainment systems to be current and “future proof”.  In reality, people hate change.  Just look at Apple’s roll out of iOS7.  It is a thing of beauty, a huge improvement.  Personally, I feel like I just got a new phone without paying for any more hardware.  But when I read the headlines, Goddess help me, it seems the rest of the world are all Apple Haters.  The complaints are never ending.

Now imagine if the software in your car underwent a similar upgrade and massive change.  All those interfaces that you have gotten use to, despite maybe hating, at least you finally know where they are and have muscle memory to find them.  A wholesale change would require wholesale learning on the driver’s part.

I am NOT against the idea of wirelessly, over the air, updating entire infotainment systems in vehicles.  Quite the opposite.  I am not only a huge supporter, I’ve been working for a decade to try and make it a reality.  It is just that I can appreciate the daunting task of notifying people of any change, actually making a change to the software, and cleaning up any unintended consequences.

Unlike phones, cars are complicated.  Communicating all the features in any given vehicle is a Sisyphean task.  And it is compounded by staff turnover of 100% annually.  When automotive OEMs launch a new car model, they spend a year developing training materials, point of purchase material, and work very, very hard to figure out how to explain everything their car can do in the simplest, shortest time possible.  They have squads of people who visit all their dealers and spend weeks training sales and service personnel.  They hire gobs of “product specialists” aka booth babes to staff auto shows and other events to speak with the public about their product.  They put up billboards, run radio spots, advertise in magazines, launch websites, twitter feeds, every communication channel possible, just to convey what is so great about their latest model.

And they staff their own call centers to take the public’s call when things are not understood.

So you want to push an update to your in-dash navigation unit ala Google Maps?  (Let’s ignore the fact that the new Google Maps is terrible as it is missing gobs of features from Google Maps Original, or that it is in beta, or that they have a way to chart usage and elicit feedback and rollout more changes…or that everyone I know HATES it.)  Yes, technically it can be done.  But before hitting SEND, any sane OEM will consider all the communication points and make sure the entire organization – dealers and all – are aware of the change, understand the change, and are prepared to deal with the change.  But like Robert Burn’s so beautifully wrote, “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry, and leave us nothing but grief and pain for promised joy!”

And too go the promise of the updatable connected car.  It will take thoughtful communications plans, excellent execution of said thoughtful plans, and a brave enough OEM to try, to even begin to change consumer expectations for their vehicle’s system.

I personally believe in the promised joy for updatable and upgradable in-vehicle infotainment systems.  I honestly think we will get there.  In my lifetime.

And if you ask sweetly, I could offer my opinion on which OEM I think will be first…