Kaushik Prasad, Ford
Guest Article

Connected Cars may be today's VCR players

If you grew up in the '80s you may remember the neighbourhood electronics store selling VCRs and VCPs (smuggled, of course). Families chose between the two devices; with one you could only play video tapes, but with the other, you could also record television programs (only Doordarshan, mind you).

However, not many families who bought a VCR bothered to record TV programs or used all of its many features. Perhaps recording on the initial VCR sets was confusing and using multiple buttons on the VCR required digital calisthenics (in an era when digital still meant something pertaining to fingers) or perhaps the reasons are just not that alone.

Kaushik Prasad
Kaushik Prasad

What was true for the VCR is probably true for almost all new consumer tech products; a vast majority of people use a limited set of its features and people who use or know how to use all its features are a small minority.

A connected cars arms race in India seems to have kicked off launch announcements of new connected automobiles. Going beyond just UI/UX, understanding human attitudes to technology is probably as important as all the technical efforts made for connected cars – the VCRs of our age.

With connected cars, the internet is inside the car and the humble automobile would turn into a computer on wheels. With cars interacting with its environs there are new business opportunities, like data-centrEs, in-car streaming services, new business models for monetiSing driving data - from insurance to maintenance and a lot more. This promises to be an iOT (internet-of-things) El Dorado with its vast riches up for grabs. In the future, we will have to learn to grapple with and address concerns regarding privacy and security (it’s not just Delhi’s infamous thak-thak gang, it could even be hackers who could make off with your car).

In the midst of this technology wet dream, it may help to remember that users of connected cars are people. How people deal with technology, while it's evolving fast, at some level remains the same.

Do we actively seek new tech or are we ambivalent towards it, do we fear it or do embrace it with a sense of optimism? Thinking about how people deal with technology is as relevant for connected cars as it is for the next new thingamajig.

For instance, sense of control is an important aspect affecting adoption of new technology. Does using the new tech leave you – the consumer – dis-empowered or does it enhance your sense of control? True story: while traveling to a colleague’s wedding in a new city, a bunch of us followed Google Maps blindly and found ourselves in the middle of sugarcane farms, hopelessly lost and quite a distance away from the spirits and celebrations. Hence, when you see people, who while using digital maps for navigation, stop by and ask a passerby for directions, in addition to reassurance that they are on the right route they are probably reasserting control over their journey.

Our sense of independence or self-sufficiency is another aspect. We have all been sold Eureka Forbes vacuum cleaners by their charming salesmen in the '80s. After the initial few days, in most families the machine sat in a corner gathering dust. While the machine promised independent cleaning of your home, after the initial enthusiasm wanes off, laziness kicks in. When you could hire a bai (maid) for less than a hundred rupees a day (and scream instructions at, too), why bother with the effort of using the machine yourself? Competition, in this case, is not just another vacuum cleaner.

Using new technology, at some level, may involve effort – mental or physical. We lack a DIY culture and most people may not bother with the mental effort required to learn or use a new technology or device. Businesses like UrbanClap or personal digital assistants have mushroomed to discourage mental or physical effort, further. Many establishments still employ peons for bringing them tea or making photocopies. Businesses employ people to make reminder phone calls to clients since many cannot be bothered with electronic communications.

Our somewhat perverse view of class and sense of entitlement may be an important cultural aspect playing a role in the adoption of technology. There are anecdotal instances of people choosing a manual transmission car over automatic, simply because they have a driver in their employ. Why spend extra for automatic gears when the driver will be doing the driving for you anyway? Adoption of air-conditioned cabins and other creature comforts for trucks on long distance hauls is probably low for similar reasons. Summoning a service provider to your doorstep and making him wait is something some people seem to think they are entitled to, your online system to book a service appointment, be damned.

Consumers may seem to be buying into what new tech is capable of doing; they state how it offers them convenience, saves them time, money or effort. While these reasons are true, consumers will not explicitly state that one of the biggest reasons for tech adoption is also, how it makes them feel or what it says about them. How does using the latest thingamabob make Mr. Sharma look in front of his neighbours? That is perhaps more valuable to him than a feature he uses just once. The need for recognition is innately human and upgrading to the latest says a lot about you. Just ask the first person who traded his horse cart for a Model T.

As the Bon Jovi song goes, the more things change the more they stay the same. As we enter the world of connected cars and as consumer behaviour evolves, some things may still stay the same. From the humble VCR to other consumer tech products there are lessons to be learnt; the more we learn about people using tech, the better prepared will we be to tap the connected car opportunity.

(The author is General Manager - Consumer Marketing, Ford India. Opinions expressed are personal and do not express the views or opinions of his employer).

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