Susan Kuchinskas reports on how OEMs are using the human-machine interface to enhance brand distinctiveness.
Mercedes Benz's discreetly encircled Y whispers luxury, while Honda's perky red lettering emphasizes its brand attributes of performance and fun.
These automakers are among the world's top 50 brands, according to corporate image consultancy Interbrand.
With the rise of car safety and infotainment systems, OEMs have an opportunity to take the brand experience even closer to the consumer—in the form of the car's onboard control system, known as the human-machine interface (HMI).
The HMI offers a wealth of new ways to let man and machine communicate.
And in the case of voice interfaces, HMIs can actually humanize the machine itself.
At the same time, differences in functionality and customization options can differentiate among various models in a manufacturer's line-up.
There are three main areas in play: features and functions, look and feel, and safety.
Features and functions
Audi's approach demonstrates how linking functionality to the top of the line can increase the perceived value of a feature, even as it becomes more affordable over time.
The company uses a top-down approach for the release of new features or system updates, installing them on the top-of-the-line models first and then rolling them out to other models in a two-year timeframe.
The ability for drivers to customize the interface is another premium feature at this point in the market's evolution, says Andrew Poliak, director of automotive business development at QNX, which was recently acquired by Research in Motion.
QNX’s ng Connect program, developed with Alcatel-Lucent and other partners, is designed to provide flexibility for both the manufacturer and the end-user.
For example, the OEM can produce a voice interface and re-skin the user interface using standard graphics tools like Flash.
"We make it very easy to completely control the interface and interactions with applications," Poliak says.
"We wanted to create something decoupled from a specific HMI, and give OEMs the most tools and flexibility to create a unique user experience."
Audi's recently launched MMI 3G, which integrates with Google Earth and includes the ability to marry 3D and 2D graphics, takes advantage of this flexibility.
This kind of flexibility also helps global OEMs customize for different markets, Poliak says.
Targeting the millennial generation
Ironically, while the connected car has been a luxury affordable only by the top of the market (usually older consumers), it's the bottom of the market that may now drive the trend, according to Paul Sykes, segment marketing manager for audio and infotainment at Renesas Electronics America, maker of chips and other behind-the-scenes technology.
The millennial generation, those born since 1982, has never known a world without cell phones, and they expect to be always connected.
So they naturally demand an infotainment-enabled car, which is something of a conundrum for manufacturers.
"Car makers will look at millennials and say, 'What car are they most likely to buy from me?' Guess what, in most cases, they're not buying top of the line," Sykes explains.
Because of this, many OEMs, led by Ford, are putting telematics into mid-range and even entry-level cars.
Sykes thinks that young consumers' love for video games with haptic controllers that respond to touch, such as the Wii, will fire up the market for haptic interface elements as well.
This doesn't mean that the user interface for high-end and budget models will be the same.
There are many things OEMs can do to maintain that luxury feeling and differentiate their product lines.
For example, a high-end auto might have a 10-inch LCD screen capable of displaying 3D graphics, while the lower end of the line might have a 4.3-inch display with only 2D rendering, Sykes says.
"By doing those kinds of things, OEMs can offer technology through the whole lineup of vehicles, but still be able to hit various price levels."
Cell phones also influence the more subtle aspects of the HMI.
Telematics Update’s ‘Human-Machine Interface Technologies Report’ found that ease of use was the top feature desired by consumers, and Apple's iPod and iPhone have set the standard.
While allowing apps on the phone to connect with the car's systems is an important trend, some experts think it's not going to be so easy, party because of safety concerns.
Safety can be another brand differentiator delivered by onboard systems.
And, with the US National Safety Council pushing to limit the use of applications while driving, safety takes on extra resonance.
"The phone is important to the consumer because it has all their stuff on it,” says Leo A. McCloskey, leader of Airbiquity's marketing and product management team.
“But it's also extraordinarily distracting and therefore dangerous. Your car is essentially the largest, most dangerous computer you'll ever own."
Therefore, it's critical that automakers take control of application interfaces, no matter where they come from.
While keeping costs in line continues to be a primary focus for OEMs and the rest of the supply chain, the race to connect the bottom of the line has been aided by the cell phone gold rush, Renesas' Sykes says.
"When a new cell phone technology is adopted, the volume grows, and that drives down prices in the market,” he says. “Then, the auto guys can take advantage of it."
As smart phones get ever smarter, adding haptics, speech recognition, and video, expect automakers to get on board.
Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.
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