The Next Big Emerging Media Device Has Four Wheels

Consumer Electronics Week is in full swing here in NYC , and one of today’s featured events was the Connected Car Conference (“C3”). The afternoon featured a variety of panels discussing the future of the telematics space from a variety of different angles.

A major theme throughout the day was the disparity in product life cycles between cars and “normal” consumer electronics. Whereas a car goes from the drawing board to the dealer in something like 8 years, consumer electronics typically make the journey from design to store in 18 months. So in order to keep pace with consumer expectations, automakers have a lot to learn from the consumer electronics industry.

As an example of the blending of formerly disparate industries, one panel featured the CTO of General Motors sitting alongside a VP from AT&T, along with other automotive electronics representatives. Tim Nixon from GM was quick to point out how the Chevy Volt platform already gives drivers access to vehicle data from their smartphone, and that consumers are going to grow to expect this kind of integration.

Another interesting topic of discussion was design aesthetics. In a dialog that seemed to echo debates about mobile interface design, panelists discussed how different car makers have different philosophies on interaction design. For instance, BMW eschews touchscreens in favor of a jog wheel placed down by the gear shifter. And much like the dueling gadget interface designs we’ve seen over the last ten to fifteen years, carmakers will duke it out as consumers decide which input methods work best for them.

Carmakers are constantly experimenting with new integrations between media and the car environment. A panelist from Gracenote described an interesting proof-of-concept experiment they did with Ford, wherein the driver triggers Madonna’s “Ray Of Light” when the headlights are turned on.

Several panelists also discussed Apple’s recent announcement of “iOS in Car”, wherein certain car models would be able to take deeper advantage of iOS7 on in-car touchscreens. While this sounds like a big breakthrough at first, the functionality is being very strictly limited at launch for safety reasons, and much of it is available on other platforms such as Pioneer’s App Radio.

Driver distraction was also a hot topic, and Gloria Bergquist of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers highlighted the tension between public policy and observed user behavior. At one point, regulators had considered banning dynamic (aka “moving”) maps from in-car nav systems, because they can be distracting. The counter-argument from the industry was that if you degrade the in-dash experience in this way, drivers will just start to try navigating with their smartphones. This obviously creates more danger than there otherwise would have been in the first place.

All in attendance agreed that while there are many nuances and challenges, apps were coming to the in-car experience and many lessons could be learned from the smartphone space about user behavior and demand for services.

Similarly brands should be aware of this shift and be ready to take advantage of the time people will spend interacting with apps rather than listening to radio and radio ads.