For Next Generation Cars, Experience Overtakes Driving

Highlights from the 2015 Geneva Motor Show

For 100-plus years, car ownership has been largely about demonstrating mastery over machines. But the machines are about to flip that relationship on its head. We still talk about driving a car. But judging from the floor of the Geneva Motor Show, the role of the human in the car is increasingly about the in-car experience and less about conquering the machine.

IDEO’s Transportation and Mobility group went to Geneva to gain insights and inspiration about the state of an industry on the cusp of significant change. Reflecting on our time there, a few things stood out as major shifts in the industry and real opportunities for how design can have positive impact in a rapidly changing landscape.

One of the most striking revelations is just how far into the background driving has fallen as a part of the in-car experience. For decades, companies have waxed lyrical about the joy of driving as their unique branded experience. While the experience remains differentiated across brands, most have shifted focus to other aspects of driving, namely, how automobiles integrate with the driver’s life, not as a separate experience. Only the performance brands made any mention of driving per se, but even that was contextualized in terms of numbers more than outright experience.

Driving, as we once knew it, is forever changed.

Fuel economy, safety, connectivity and in-car entertainment are what pass for notable features today. A Volvo ad in the official event program makes reference to “Our Idea of Luxury,” describing the navigation system, the in-car assistant, heads-up display, and a sound system by Bowers & Wilkins.

This kind of shift in focus, with reliability and relative performance expectations being pretty equal across brands, opens up an enormous opportunity for disruption in the industry. It explains why the automotive world has taken note of not only Tesla’s alternative power plant but, perhaps more importantly, its means of selling directly to consumers and the ability to update its vehicles wirelessly. This also explains just how much attention the mere rumor of an Apple-designed car experience has gained in the past few months.

The real defining feature of cars will be the experience of being in the car, not driving it. This is true now when we still have to “drive” our cars. It will be especially true when cars are driving themselves. And the company that can create a truly differentiated and delightful user experience is going to have a big market advantage. What new experiences will be made possible when the focus on driving is no longer constantly required?

There are not many car manufacturers that have a long history of designing user experiences. Driving used to define the in-car experience. But as the mechanical underpinnings of the world’s cars regress toward a mean, driving is similar enough and (more importantly) good enough so that reliability, quality, and durability are merely table stakes.

Inevitably, car companies will have to pivot (or partner) quickly. Cars will have to shift from being driver-focused to being experience-focused and car manufacturers are going to need to develop new skills and new ways of working in order to stay ahead of the many disrupters standing in the wings (like Tesla, Apple, and Google, for example). Automotive manufacturers will have to think carefully about how their products interface with the world around them in a myriad of new, unforeseen, smart, and delightful ways. In short, the in-car experience will no doubt evolve but the real opportunity is in the experience of being mobile which will extend beyond the car through connected service layers that allow us to move seamlessly through our world.

Implications for Design

Supercars are Alive and Well but Disguised as Hybrids

Geneva tends to cater towards supercars and 2015 was no exception. The good news is they are evolving to meet performance expectations balanced with environmental impact considerations. Most include both traditional internal combustion (IC) and electric power. Ford’s new GT is powered by an 6-cylinder Ecoboost engine and manages to squeezes over 600 bhp out of that (relatively small) power plant. Porsche’s 918 Spyder (a $1,000,000 supercar) uses hybrid technology to get 24 highway MPG. This continues a tradition of introducing new (and expensive) technology at the high end of the market and then letting economies of scale take it into the mass market. Hybrids aren’t new, of course, but hybrids that boost mileage and performance are. And the proliferation into the luxury segment is happening at the same time as the performance market which bodes well for the continued democratization of this technology.

Extracting more from less: The new Ford GT is powered by an EcoBoost V-6.

Connected Services are Becoming Commoditized

There are a suite of virtual features which are also table stakes: remote access, dispatching of emergency services in the event of an accident, and various on-demand concierge services, most notably. OEMs that use these channels as a way of maintaining relationships with their customers should yield long term loyalty. These services will no doubt include new ways of building product awareness, allowing for customers to access a variety of vehicles as well as offering new financing and ownership models.

Active Safety is a Given

Active safety systems (Dynamic Traction Control, ABS, pre-collision brake preparation, pre-collision safety belts, as well as driver assistance systems like blind spot warning and collision warnings) that once differentiated vehicles at the high end of the market are now offered across many car company’s entire range of vehicles. The proliferation of these systems is important because they provide a trojan horse for fully autonomous cars. “Active safety” is how the technological underpinnings for semi and fully autonomous vehicles are being marketed and sold today but this is serving an equally important role by acclimatizing drivers to the technology and building trust required before autonomous vehicles gain widespread adoption.

Surprising Lack of Focus on Autonomous Driving

Meanwhile, explicitly autonomous vehicles were almost non-existent. Perhaps this was because CES is emerging as the more appropriate venue to introduce future tech for the industry. In 2014 there were a record 10 OEMs at CES (up from four the year before) and the star of that show, Mercedes’ F 015, was nowhere to be seen in Geneva. So while autonomous is being hailed as the next big thing in the media, the evidence suggests that the industry is at least a few years from having autonomous cars in dealerships.

Overall, what was on offer at Geneva this year got us thinking about more trends in the industry and the promise on the horizon for further innovation. The variance of content presented by vehicle manufacturers both here and at other venues like CES hints at the renaissance-like evolution that automotive industry finds itself in the midst of. Exciting times whether you are in Las Vegas, Geneva or Detroit to be sure.

For more of our thinking about innovation in the transportation and mobility domain and a provocation on the possible future impact of moving towards a world of automobility visit: