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The Ride Ahead

How OEMs Can Conquer Digital

Five guidelines to help car companies navigate the digital development path.

We have recognized a product development truth: the faster a product, the slower its development cycle. Think about it. Spacecraft take decades to develop, airplanes a decade, cars half a decade, and mobile phones — a year or two. It is an observation that is obvious in retrospect, but worth calling out as the car and the mobile phone merge into a more broadly defined “mobile” industry. One look at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) reveals this combination in real time. Cars increasingly dominate CES, and typically the only working elements of the cars on the NAIAS show floor are infotainment systems.

This blurring of lines has both product and organizational implications. The slow development of the fast moving car now needs to incorporate the rapid development cycles of digital experiences. How can cars that take five years to launch as products incorporate digital experiences that do not feel five years old when the car hits the market?

The answer is a kind of parallax, where the digital experiences in the foreground move more rapidly than the physical car in the rear. At frog, we are ushering in this future not only through the in-car digital experience itself, but also by helping our automotive clients transform themselves from car manufacturers into the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of “mobile platforms.”

Not surprisingly, there is evidence of movement in this direction already. “We’re thinking of ourselves as a mobility company and not only a car and truck company,” said Ford’s CEO Mark Fields. This is not just convenient marketing-speak. For example, BMW has invested in several digital-mobility tech companies as part of its BMW i brand, to reach beyond cars and position itself more broadly as a company that helps the world move.

This opens up a new front in the automotives war, moving beyond the horsepower and safety battlefronts into new territory. In the 1990s and 2000s, it was trendy to refer to cars as a “living room on four wheels,” as options for screens and better stereos proliferated. As our living rooms have become ever more wired and integrated into our digital lives, this moniker remains true. However, there is a pivot coming in which technology will be so integrated into cars that we might start thinking of the living room as a “car without wheels.”

The answer is a kind of parallax, where the digital experiences in the foreground move more rapidly than the physical car in the rear.

This constraint will have seismic impact throughout OEMs’ processes, cultures, hiring, brand strategies, and product development cycles. It will require an ever-greater focus on the ability to continually update and improve offerings in the same real time that consumers have come to expect from the other high-tech devices they own.

Most notably, the process of developing a car and managing its lifecycle will undergo substantial change, at least in the area of the driver experience. OEMs will need to accept constraints. They will also need to push their organizational and product boundaries in order to innovate effectively for an increasingly mobile future — one in which the car is only one of the devices within a consumer’s mobility ecosystem.

Finally, there are the consumers themselves. The transformation of the industry is being driven in equal parts by enabling technology and consumer expectations. Drivers want to do more while driving, but are equally repulsed by the erratic behavior of those trying to multitask at the wheel. Eventually autonomous cars may render these messy human-distraction concerns obsolete, but that shiny future will not arrive immediately — or without caveats. The desire to design and regulate an optimal balance behind the wheel has already prompted wide-scale changes to automotive development, and consumer expectations are one of the key elements OEMs must seek out and support as they face the future.

To help car companies navigate this new parallax-development path, frog has identified five guidelines:

  • Embrace the parallax: think in months, not years.
  • Exercise empathy: know what is developing in mobile, online, and social spaces and understand what consumers are experiencing and expect.
  • Evolve into a mobility company: think beyond the car.
  • Un-silo product teams: create a seamless digital experience across major components such as the instrument panel, center stack, and heads-up display (HUD).
  • Recognize the risks, but also the benefits, of partnering: understand how quick and effective solutions impact increasingly core brand elements.

Embrace the parallax

The digital experience should continue to be designed long after the car’s design is “locked.” This may be culturally uncomfortable, and that is normal; breaking this cycle and letting software evolve is the single biggest challenge OEMs face. This means that while the screen size and tech specs may get locked down relatively early on, what actually happens on the screen will likely change many times. Even industry shifts in this area (like Google’s Open Automotive Alliance) can disrupt plans in this space. Flexibility — and managing internal expectations, timelines, and interdependencies — is critical.

As of this writing, Tesla has released 17 updates to its onboard software for its Model S. Tesla is an anomaly in many regards, but the mindset that a car can continue development even after it has left the dealership is one with which traditional OEMs struggle. Neither drivers nor legislators will tolerate buggy code that impacts safety; this is still the primary concern for all parties and a high bar for OEMs to match. But the Tesla model does not have to be the de facto OEM standard. Alternatives exist that include but extend beyond software: imagine field-upgradable hardware and modular components (camera, mic, depth cameras, motion sensors, weight sensors) that extend the reasonable life, relevance, and scope of those digital elements and keep a car from seeming outdated within a few years.

Exercise empathy

This is good advice for any company, though here it refers specifically to the often-insular nature of car design. Amazing automotive designers plus incredible engineers plus materials scientists often equal incredible cars, but this equation sometimes lacks an outside view on what consumers expect and want. If an OEM’s parking lot is filled with only their cars, the resulting myopia can be hard to overcome. Sure, OEMs each have their own fleets of competitors’ cars for benchmarking and testing, but those cars should be loaned out on a long-term basis to product development employees, not kept in the lab or on the test track. Living with the cars can reveal insights not seen in artificial environments.

Similarly, ethnographic research has changed the landscape of corporate innovation, but it has been slow to catch on with automakers. OEMs should consider performing this immersive, visceral research in real-world scenarios with actual drivers of their (and their competitors’) cars. Commuting with them, observing a portion of a road trip, running errands, and other key use cases relevant to the model will help get beyond the predominant engineering-driven mindset often prevalent within OEMs and establish a human-centric design model.

Evolve into a mobility company

TV shows follow consumers from room to room. Banking can be done on the web, through an app, in person, or at an ATM. As people increasingly expect their digital lives to follow them regardless of the platform they use, carmakers should understand that they represent only one of the platforms in a driver’s life. To be sure, the car is a large and important platform, but the more isolated from these other platforms an OEM becomes, the higher the risk of being perceived as a technology laggard.

This is not to say that we are or should be headed to a future where Facebook is on the HUD, but it does mean thoughtfully designed user experiences. With the right parameters in place, digital experiences and driving do not need to be mutually exclusive. This means that OEMs ought to regularly get out of their industry space and consider the larger ecosystem. The difficulty here is mostly cultural: for 100 years, OEMs created a product independent of any other purchase, but now they need to recognize the automotive equivalents of an API that will let them “play well with others” and more seamlessly integrate into the consumer’s complete mobile experience.

Un-silo product teams to create a seamless digital experience

It is a siloed world right now in OEMs; car models are developed in separate teams, and individual components of those cars are designed and developed within individual teams. But consumers do not think in components — they think about experiences. Either the whole hangs together, or it seems like a federation of unrelated touch points. Is infotainment separate from the instrument panel team, or from the audio team? Not in the minds of consumers, but they are created by people who may not talk to each other outside of preordained milestone reviews on program management spreadsheets. As stated above, development teams have to design and develop based on a human-centric approach, but they must also work toward this goal together with an appreciation for how each element of their work influences the overall experience of the consumer.

Recognize the risks, but also the benefits, of partnering

It is hard to tell which is scarier to automotive OEMs: Apple or Google. But what is most frightening, simply from a business point of view, is trying to become something you are not. Especially when world-class alternatives are present in the form of software companies. On the one hand, the iOS move is all about controlling the user experience (UX) in a way that is familiar to the consumer, while the Android move is all about a common underlying framework where the UX is still owned by the manufacturer. It will be critically important from a brand and strategy standpoint that the goals of the OEM are clear on these two paths. One hands control of an increasingly visible core experience of the car to an outside party, while the other retains the ability to manage that experience but requires a digital team that can shepherd a unique presentation layer from ideation to market.

This raises the question of in-house teams. Will OEMs ever attract and retain digital design and engineering talent? Uber — and Google before it — recruit from top-tier graduate schools, and OEMs like Honda already have partnerships with universities that pay dividends on safety and engineering parameters. Opening up the partner model to the design of digital experiences will only bring more diverse talent into the mix.

As in all product and service design, context is key: creative solutions are limited by the need to be legible, selectable, intuitive, and safe — all at 70 mph. There is a constructive tension between the creative forces that design compelling and fresh mobile experiences and the engineering forces that ensure our cars are safe, consistently understandable, and do not need to be re-booted in the middle of the highway. Navigating some relatively simple — but deceptively hard — parameters will pay dividends for OEMs looking to succeed in the next 10 years.


frog is a global design and strategy firm. We transform businesses at scale by creating systems of brand, product and service that deliver a distinctly better experience. We strive to touch hearts and move markets. Our passion is to transform ideas into realities. We partner with clients to anticipate the future, evolve organizations and advance the human experience.

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