One day your car will be your personal assistant – FOS Future Lab
Forget cars: the future of car brands is selling services. No, I’ve never really understood what that means either, until last week, when Goodwood spoke to Mercedes-Benz about their new all-singing, all-dancing MBUX digital system.
MBUX (UX is millennial parlance for “user experience”) is, in its crudest form, what we call an infotainment system. Which, in turn, is the stuff that buttons used to do, and now touchscreens sort. So, your sat-nav, ability to make phone calls, choose a song from your smartphone, turn the air-con on, or activate the seat massage function. All that. But, even though most of us are still marvelling at the likes of BMW’s iDrive or Audi’s MMI to perform these functions for us via a large glass surface with no knobs, car brands have moved on, and their infotainment systems are already evolving to the next stage: connected services. Mercedes has now set foot in this brave new world, and it will all be coming to a car near you, very soon.
Already, MBUX, which launched in the A-Class in 2018, and is rolled out as standard with every new model from now on, does some jaw-dropping stuff in the UK market (we’ll come on to what it’s capable of in China in a second). The sat-nav, for example, switches from a map display to a camera view down the road ahead of you as you approach the road you need to take. A blue arrow with the name of the road on it points the way. Or take the picture gallery which displays the songs available on your iPhone and carousels them across the large screen, or the mood-altering settings you can select which alter stuff like the ambient lighting, temperature, massage functions and music to induce feelings of joy, warmth or vitality. And all that is just stuff for while you’re in the car; it’s the basics of the system, which has already evolved.
The major stepping stone to the next level is voice activation. Mercedes, like BMW and other brands, already offers voice commands. “Hey! Mercedes!” you say like an idiot, and then ask it to turn the temperature down or call Aunt Bessie. But, again, that’s the basics. The next step, already available in China, is “Hey, Mercedes! Drive me to an Asian restaurant near Hyde Park, but not a sushi one, that has WiFi and is child friendly”. You can order takeaway from restaurants (MBUX will read you the menu, or select things from it according to your preferences), and time them to arrive at your doorstep at the same time as you. The ability is there to select cinema seats and book the tickets, check in with a home service company like Nest to see if you left the lights on, or turn the heating on.
And this is where selling services comes in. All car brands will need to partner with companies like Trip Advisor, Yell, Amazon Music, What3Words and more, to connect with the Internet of Things, as it’s called. That will mean revenue-sharing agreements, whereby, for some partners, every time Mercedes recommends one of their products in answer to a query from the car occupant, Mercedes gets a percentage of the profit when that product or service is bought.
Inevitably, that prompts questions from concerned motorists about their privacy and data, and whether they will know that the product or service Mercedes is recommending is essentially a sell from which Mercedes stands to profit. Right now, there are no arrangements like that, and when they start to come into play, which is inevitable, the motorist must be made aware in the same way customers are told if the content they read in a newspaper is in fact content paid for by a third party – an advertorial, as the business calls it.
All this is to come, and you might well ask if it’s really going to take off. Currently, voice activation software in cars is highly annoying and not intuitive. Consider this, though. Even in its basic form now, drivers with Hey Mercedes in their cars use it on average 40 times a month. Mercedes predicts that the estimated value of purchases done via smart speakers (i.e. voice activated) will be $40bn by 2022. That’s a tidy little sum which car companies with uncertain futures would do well to tap in to.
As Mercedes says, consider it this way: if an iPhone is the device, iOS is the platform and Siri is the assistant, then so Mercedes is the device, MBUX is the platform and Hey Mercedes is the assistant. And it hasn’t worked out too badly for Apple.
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