Time for a renaissance of the in-car experience

Words by Ben Thrasher
Date 2024-06-03

Five years ago, the debate around who would win the war of the roads was fierce. Combustion engine lovers passionately defended their right to maintain dominance of the highways, with electric vehicle (EV) fanatics (and many governments) advocating for their mode of transport presenting a viable and long-term solution for the future of mobility.

Fast forward to now, and it seems everyone has taken their foot off the pedal. The UK government has confirmed a delay to the ban on fossil fuel cars until 2035. EVs account for less than 15% of new car sales in the UK, and one in five motorists more generally have considered giving up their car entirely. EVs may well still be the expression of the technicalities of a future motoring world. The challenge is in reinspiring motorists with an experience equally as future facing and innovative.

Apple’s a little too far from the tree

Apple’s recent announcement that it’s taking itself out of the EV race would indicate it is not the right brand to lead the convoy to the future. The question is whether there is space in the automotive industry for Apple to exercise its flair for innovation. Apple is used to showing up in industries where consumers might not expect it, but only if there is room to truly innovate that industry. And the reality is that waning governmental support and personal financial pressures leave the automotive industry lacking the bandwidth for an outsider to inspire this revolution.

Apple has tried breaking down the barriers of the automotive industry, but it increasingly seems to be emerging as a sector whereby the established players really hold the keys for success.

If in doubt look to the skies

Audience relevance, brand authenticity and distinct market offering leads us back to the original car manufacturers being in pole position to open up the motoring world of the future. Drivers switching off their ignitions is not a rejection of the car brand itself. Rather, it’s a reflection that a car journey no longer holds the value it once did. It is now infringing on becoming dead time. To combat this, car manufacturers could look to the evolution of the airlines.

Waning governmental support and personal financial pressures leave the automotive industry lacking the bandwidth for an outsider to inspire this revolution

As air-travel became relatively mainstream, airlines identified an opportunity to further embed their brand in the experience passengers receive when travelling on their planes. The time spent on a plane no longer necessitated being dead time in transit—the car industry is currently nearing this precipice —but facilitated a deeper connection between the brand and passenger.

For example, American Airlines recognised that its brand served a largely business audience; to further stake claim of this specialism it focused on features that would enhance a person’s experience travelling for business, including the introduction of seats in first class that swivelled around to allow passengers to write at a desk.

Contrastingly, Emirates understood that its market offering was increasingly associated with luxury travel. The features it introduced to its cabins focused therefore entirely on allowing its passengers to achieve maximum comfort and feel a sense of distinct exclusivity. The airlines have recognised the value in allowing their brand positioning and purpose to inform any travellers on their planes.

EV—experience vehicles

Tesla is one obvious example of a car manufacturer who has also heavily leaned into its brand personality in order to elevate the automotive experience. Through allowing its whimsical brand identity to inform the in-car brand experience, features such as the in-car karaoke experience or farting indicators make sense for the brand. It won’t make sense for all brands, in fact it’s unlikely it will make sense for any other brands to introduce such comedic features. However, car manufacturers have been delivering vehicles to customers for decades, and will have an acute understanding of how the brand is considered in the market.

Such intel has been used to inform a meticulously strategised brand purpose and positioning. It is this brand positioning that will most effectively inform what a driver or passenger experiences within the cabin. Ford, for example, is renowned for dependability, usability and functionality. How might this manifest in an enhanced experience? Perhaps it might introduce work tables, following a similar route to American Airlines.

Mercedes-Benz however, may follow a similar route to Emirates. Renowned for its luxury, an in-car experience from Mercedes will centre on absolute comfort and splendour.

The future of automotive travel is nearing a drastic change. Long established car manufacturers should not fear losing out. They understand the car buyers and what their brand means to consumers. Through allowing the brand to inspire the future in car experience, players can get in pole position for defining the new in-car experience.

First published in Automotive World.