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The Ride Ahead

Redefining the Connected Car in China

How the needs of Chinese consumers could shape the global connected automotive experience.

China has been the largest global market for car sales since 2009. With demand for connected cars predicted to reach 23 million in Asia by 2020, international and local automakers will have to continue to take a China-first stance in defining the connected in-car experience.

Automakers have already realized that to capitalize on this huge market they must design for the needs of the Chinese driver. This requires a deep understanding of nuanced behaviors in and around the vehicle, as well as the Chinese specific context in which the vehicle exists. Collecting this data, interpreting it, and applying it in the design and development of the connected car will result in internet-enabled vehicles that are different than their counterparts in the West.

Demanding driving conditions

Driving in a tier-one or tier-two city in China is not a pleasant experience. As the largest urban areas in that country, these cities have fast-changing infrastructure and regulation. Coupled with heavy traffic of mostly inexperienced drivers, they create an ever-demanding environment.

According to frog’s personal transportation study, the top car-ownership worries for consumers in China are time wasted in traffic, risk of accident, parking, and cost of ownership. These conditions are worsening, and automakers are starting to realize that the connected car needs to address these core pain-points headfirst.

For example, the need for personalized navigation solutions becomes pronounced. To cope with changing infrastructure and regulation, drivers need navigation systems that are not only always up-to-date, but also provide regulatory updates tailored to their car registration number.

Because of the harsh driving environment and the relatively low driving experience of most drivers, there is a heightened need for protection. This is clearly manifested in the pervasive use of dash-cams. They are small, always-on cameras that record the front of the car to provide evidence in case of an accident. They are considered a must-have item not only to deal with standard accidents, but with fake accidents too. These are scams led by people who prey on the empathy of drivers to secure insurance payouts. Carmakers must put protection from numerous hazards at the forefront of the connected car experience to be successful in this market.

Service as social currency

The service expectations for most Chinese consumers are extremely high. Same-day or next-day delivery is expected for most online purchases, and this expectation also applies to the automobile industry. Dealerships are important not only in the purchase, but also in servicing the needs of drivers. Often the established sales relationship evolves into a service relationship, where drivers frequently contact the salesperson to resolve issues and get support in tricky situations involving the car. In a society where relationships are a currency for all kinds of benefits and savings, automakers will increasingly find themselves in the privileged position of naturally owning lifetime relations with customers.

Automakers have already realized that to capitalize on this huge market they must design for the needs of the Chinese driver.

On the other hand, there are established after-sales markets that provide fast upgrades of any kind. The ease with which drivers can upgrade the entire Human Machine Interface (HMI) — sometimes in less than 30 minutes — with a local third-party system is tempting some drivers to install solutions that better meet their needs.

For now, the brand and the level of accountability provided by the dealership are seen as security nets to avoid potential issues, but another possibility for future success could include automakers partnering with these services to facilitate a modular ecosystem for the car.

Fluid ownership

One of the more interesting aspects of car ownership in China is the fluidity of usage. The car is perceived as a status symbol, but it is often shared between friends and family. It is not uncommon for parents to go with their adult child to work and then drive the car back home to avoid parking fees, and young drivers are sharing their cars with each other in order to experience different vehicles and become more savvy motorists. Through our research, we found that those surveyed in China spend more time in the car with co-workers, family, and friends than those surveyed in other parts of the world.


Such a fluid sense of ownership presents its own set of challenges and opportunities for the connected car. Privacy becomes a key concern, especially across generations. The last thing the driver wants is for her dad to have access to her WeChat messages. On the other hand, designing for the car as a shared space can provide lots of interesting opportunities to enhance relationships through, for example, asynchronous communication features.

China first

These insights give us a glimpse into how the connected car experience should evolve for the China market. As automakers continue to build a detailed understanding of Chinese driver behavior, the design of in-car, sales, and service experiences will be re-imagined for a market with unique needs. In addition, as the market leader in connected cars, China will increasingly be the go to destination for automakers to define and iterate on the connected in-car experience. Connected cars around the world may one day be based on a template originally tailored to China.

For more information about the survey, click here to visit the Study Appendix.

Siddharta Lizcano

Siddharta helps organizations design for a better future using collaboration and design tools from start to finish. His areas of expertise and interest include workshops, design research, experience design, and fun times.

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