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Millennial Tyranny in the Connected Car

Millennial Tyranny in the Connected Car
by Roger C. Lanctot on 08-30-2016 at 12:00 pm

 Nielsen’s latest AutoTECHCAST study once again introduces confusion to the connected car debate, but it’s understandable and relates to a demographic gradient around technology. Young people are aware of an interested in so-called “brought-in” technologies, while the majority of (older) people who make the majority of car purchases are more interested in built-in technologies, according to Nielsen’s study.

Because cars last so long and probably because it’s more fun marketing to younger people, car companies are permanently fixated on marketing their products to younger consumers. Lately this means that millennials rule marketing messages. It also means that “oldies” can feel a little alienated or out of touch.

One of my middle-aged sisters (well, they’re older than me) railed at me recently over the increasingly confusing and, more importantly, distracting array of dashboard doodads in new cars. I was driving a Ford rental at the time.

People like my sister are generally only interested in getting from point A to point B. In-car doodads are not universally interesting to all car buyers or drivers.

Young people are more interested in technology and more aware and comfortable with technology, Nielsen tells us. This is precisely why car makers are offering mobile device integration systems such as Apple CarPlay and Alphabet’s Android Auto – and why car makers are offering their own proprietary integration systems. They want to connect with younger consumers and they don’t want to be left out of the latest tech wave.

That’s important to understand because it reflects the fact that car makers are not introducing smartphone integration based on consumer demand. Car makers are introducing smartphone integration like CarPlay and Android Auto to mitigate distraction – and their potential liability exposure – and as a convenience.

The problem is that young people prefer to use their devices without the help of an integration system – at least judging from my observations of my own twenty-something children and their driving and mobile device use behavior. They prefer to interact directly with their devices because that is the interface with which they are familiar. And let’s admit it – connecting a smartphone in a car is an unnatural act.

The problem with the Nielsen study, and why it is so confusing, is that the study’s conclusions, based on a claimed completed survey base of more than 11,000, are, according to Automotive News:

  • The base familiarity of the 44 auto-related technologies included in the survey was 25%;
  • Consumers in connected cars prefer built-in systems over brought-in systems;
  • Millennials are the most interested in new technology;
  • Nearly one-third of respondents have never heard of connected car features such as access to the Internet and cloud services.

The headlines reporting the Nielsen study emphasized either the fact that consumers were confused about connected car technology or that it was a very low purchasing priority. This is hardly a surprise because most people using or buying a car just need transportation. They are carrying their “connectivity” in their pockets.

The oddest aspect of the survey is that it is published by Nielsen which acquired radio ratings company Arbitron more than a year ago. Arbitron had built a $500M business on estimating listening audiences for the purposes of producing ratings which serve as a crucial element in pricing radio advertising buys – in the same way that Nielsen meters determine the pricing of TV advertising.

The irony is that neither Arbitron nor Nielsen has a good handle on in-car listening which easily accounts for more than 50% of total radio listening. The Nielsen survey serves to reinforce the fact that Nielsen simply doesn’t understand the technical or marketing environment that is redefining content consumption in the car.

But it’s not just that Nielsen doesn’t understand connected car content consumption. Nielsen doesn’t understand that safety, fuel efficiency, cost of ownership, reliability and brand have been and likely will continue to be more important than connectivity.

Older consumers in particular understand this more than most because they’ve owned and used cars for a longer period of time and therefore understand the value propositions that endure. Connectivity and infotainment have yet to prove their enduring value, but may look or sound cool to younger potential car buyers.

To add further confusion to the mix, consumers may be interested in connecting their smartphones in cars, but may be confused as to why they’d want or need a built-in connection. Car companies have yet to define a compelling value proposition for the embedded connection other than selling data minutes for Wi-Fi, which actually doesn’t sound that attractive.

In the absence of a compelling value proposition, it’s no wonder consumers are confused as to the “meaning” of car connectivity in the context of such a survey. What is happening is that cars themselves are becoming more confusing and consumers are becoming more distracted and less interested.

It’s hardly a shock that, in this environment, confusion reigns and content consumption is fragmenting. In this context car companies have an opportunity and an obligation to take charge. Simplify the human machine interaction in the car, emphasize safety, and focus on value.

Car connectivity won’t become a core automotive value proposition until car companies stop chasing millennials with in-dash apps and, instead, focus on leveraging car connections for enhancing safe driving and customer retention. Consumers are confused – and uninterested – because car makers are confused. Nielsen too. (Next time, Nielsen should ask about consumer interest in faster horses.)

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