News & Views

Redefining the Cabin Experience

When Financial Times ran the headline “GM takes on Google and Apple in race for self-driving cars”1 in 2015, it raised some eyebrows—how could a traditional automaker fresh out of bankruptcy possibly compete with the global titans of technology? 

Six years and one global pandemic later, everyone from banks to grocery stores are calling themselves tech companies. With Automotive OEMs following suit, they are experiencing new challenges and opportunities in their transition. After all, “traditional” tech companies offer seamless experiences, drive near-obsessive customer loyalty, and innovate at lightning speed. GM aims to double their revenue to $280B by 2030 due to services and its Ultifi OS, Ford is hiring an Apple executive as its chief advanced technology and embedded systems officer and Stellantis showcased their roadmap for 14 of their brands going green and adding a dedicated and separated software division. Another factor affecting innovation is COVID-19 and the chip shortage, which lingers on with no end in sight; excuses for inaction among OEMs are piling up along with the inventory. It’s tempting—but dangerous— to sit on the sidelines waiting to see what competitors roll out next. OEMs can’t afford to put HMI innovation on hold during this crisis. Consumers’ expectations about seamless technology haven’t paused during the past 18 months—they’ve accelerated ten-fold, and tech-savvy young car buyers are leading the charge. Last year, Millennials bought more new cars than any other age group, accounting for 1 of every 3 new-car sales and edging out Baby Boomers for the first time.2

Fortunately, there are actions OEMs can take today to move from aspiration to actionable innovation. It takes redefining the customer and the customer experience; a willingness to adopt new technologies and partnerships; and an openness to learning from some unexpected places.

Create Simple, Seamless Cabin Experiences That Cut Through the Complexity

Even as OEMs pursue the tech title, they struggle to relinquish the century-old definition of their customers as “drivers.”In reality, though, today’s mobility users are first and foremost digital consumers. They are accustomed to friction-free experiences from their Apple, Google, and Amazon devices and their respective eco-systems. They’re able to control in-home lighting, music, entertainment, and shopping through simple voice commands. Now OEMs have to figure out how to create that same level of seamlessness and personalization across many modes (lighting, audio, entertainment, navigation, communication, etc.). Rather than compete with users’ phones, OEMs have welcomed Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and the newly opened Alexa AI to improve the in-cabin experience. Rivian’s move to exclude Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is bold and will be watched. But that compatibility is now table stakes—and it reflects an uncomfortable reality. Even as mobility companies try to reimagine themselves as tech companies, the big tech firms are becoming leading players in mobility, positioning themselves to dominate as vehicles become user-focused tech pods on wheels.

In reality, though, today’s mobility users are first and foremost digital consumers.

To stand their ground, OEMs need to add value that complements the mobile tech that users bring with them, creating a seamless end-to-end experience that extends the “work and live from anywhere” mantra of the modern consumer. Cabin light patterns and colors that synch with specific users’ playlists; sweeping hi-def screens that display navigation in 3-D; and heads-up displays that show incoming calls or upcoming road closures can help OEMs keep pace. But to truly thrive, they must also introduce entirely new cabin experiences to delight users. Massaging, rotatable seats that give easy access to massive crystal-clear infotainment screens. Beautiful, elegant interfaces that respond to voice, gesture, and touch. Intuitive AI that automatically customizes features for each user. Experiences that help ease the transition to autonomous driving and enable new forms of passenger infotainment. Most pressing of all, OEMs need to become agile enough to deliver these new experiences at the speed of life.

Use Collaborative Technology and Partnerships to Accelerate Product Development

In pursuing the “tech company” label, the mobility industry is trying to overhaul its image to simultaneously appeal to customers and to the engineers, innovators, and tech talent it so desperately needs. Still, most OEMs are struggling with the day-to-day demands of finding talent, let alone re-skilling and retaining a workforce that can leverage modern tools. A new study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute concludes that up to 2.1 million manufacturing jobs will remain unfilled through 2030—a dire worker shortage that will stifle production and cost the U.S. economy $1 trillion. Yet customer expectations won’t wait. The fast-paced world of HMI requires that designs be prototyped, tested, and launched in a matter of months instead of years—and users increasingly expect OTA updates that are safe, seamless, and stress-free.

It’s a new level of disruption in the OEM space, and one that innovators are embracing. New software is highly collaborative, and digital product development allows design, QA, and production teams to experience a product in 3D and make rapid real-time adjustments.

Collaboration can fill the widening talent gap and provide OEMs instant access to automotive UX designers, real-time 3D engine development, and emerging technologies. For example, using the visual scripting system in Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, Vectorform designers were able to create HMI elements for soon-to-be-revealed vehicles without writing a single line of code—enabling OEMs to fast-track what could have been a lengthy design process. It’s a new level of disruption in the OEM space, and one that innovators are embracing. New software is highly collaborative, and digital product development allows design, QA, and production teams to experience a product in 3D and make rapid real-time adjustments. Volkswagen recently stretched the possibilities of collaborative tech by developing the prototype for its Nivus crossover in 100% virtual reality, reducing costs by 65% and shaving nearly a full calendar year off the design phase. Its powerful testimony to the fact that even if OEMs can’t start manufacturing due to supply chain constraints, they can be learning through 3D modeling and VR-enabled product testing.5

Look To Other Mobility Verticals for Best Practices

The recent IAA Mobility event in Munich was a prime example: it covered mobility holistically, bringing together automotive and digital leaders, and giving OEMs of all sizes the chance to share their vision for transportation in a new way. It’s clear that as they transform the cabin experience, automotive companies can gather valuable lessons by exploring innovations in other areas of the mobility industry.

  • Major airlines have mastered ala carte pricing to create new revenue streams—and passengers have proven willing to pay for extra comfort and perks. OEMs can create similar opportunities for automakers to monetize the cabin experience. Users could choose which advanced features meet their needs in the moment: rear-seat entertainment with pay-as-you-play gaming options for road trips with the kids, for example. It’s a field ripe for innovation, as personal air transportation companies begin trading on Wall Street and eVOTL leaders like Lilium, Joby, and Archer start defining a new era of custom cabin experiences.
  • European rail companies are ramping up the train cabin experience, with Paris-based start-up Midnight Trains designing private rooms with a full-size bed and bathroom to “upturn the world of transportation from a commodity to a real travel experience.”6 RVs and Class 8 trucks could also look beyond commoditization to incorporate larger, more luxurious appointments. Even in passenger cars, OEMs can get creative with seating options that make in-cabin sleeping a delight rather than a chiropractic nightmare.
  • Post-COVID cruise lines are using technology for more than health and safety; they’re also improving the passenger experience. LG’s new cruise-specific TVs support 39 languages and enable passengers to wirelessly stream music and video from their mobile devices. Disney’s newest Wish Ship features an interactive digital quest where families bring ship artwork and signage to life with the swipe of a cellphone, creating a series of mini-game experiences throughout the cruise. OEMs could design autonomous taxis that are fluent in numerous languages, or create connections to smart city nodes that let families use cabin glass to engage with their surroundings or enjoy real-time 3D travelogues.

Opportunities to add value through HMI will expand as autonomous driving and car subscription services become more commonplace. The OEMs that use this time to test and refine their cabin experiences will emerge as leaders when all riders become de facto passengers. 

Actions to Consider

De-politicize your data. Research through Voice of Customer (VOC) and Voice of Product (VOP), and make sure the unfiltered truth gets to your product development team. Data is currency, and no mobility company can afford to leave it on the table.

Honestly assess the capabilities of your design and development ecosystem. Is your network capable of taking swift action to deliver on the innovative opportunities your research unveils?  Are external partners connecting you with the latest tech innovations and slashing your cycle time? If not, start seeking out new partnerships immediately. Don’t know where to start? See how Vectorform can help!

Don’t wait to see what companies like Tesla roll out next month. Take action today. Research, explore real-time engine solutions, and look beyond the automotive industry for inspiration.  



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