The manufacturing cycle of an average car is a long one. From the first day of planning through to the car being launched to the world takes from 4 – 5 years on average, which poses a variety of technology problems. 4- 5 years feels like an absolute age in the technology industry. 5 years ago we had just seen the iPhone 4s launch and Snapchat and Instagram were still in their infancy, yet brand new cars released in 2016 were being planned at this point.
The first day obviously isn’t the day all of the decisions are made, but there are phases along the roadmap where things get locked down to ensure the production cycle will work. This varies from company to company, but a specific example I can share is via Bentley. It takes around 48 months to design a Bentley and some of the architecture for infotainment systems can be defined even earlier. Sometimes this is due to technology sharing amongst the wider parent group, in this case VW. For Bentley’s new 2-seater sports car, which is due to launch in 2021, the lock down date for the interior technology has already passed in 2016. With a 5 year lead time between this point and the car reaching customers, it’s easy to see why the digital experience can lack behind the rest of the tech world.
A recent example is the £150,000+ Bentayga. The entertainment system has an 8 inch screen with a resolution of 800 x 480 pixels (116 pixels per inch), which compared to the Samsung Galaxy S7’s screen at 2560 x 1440 pixels (577 pixels per inch) is pretty lacklustre.
Bentley have adopted some more up-to-date technology though, by having Apple Watch integration you can control some of your in-car settings remotely. Although for the exception of setting the climate control to pre-warm or cool the car I’m not sure why you’d need to remotely turn on your massaging seats. If you’re already in the car, the button to activate this would be much faster to use – even if you’re being chauffeured and sat in the back – so some of this technology is part of the sales pitch and may exist because it can, but may not be actively useful for the customer.
Another issue with the car industry is the reluctance to provide software updates to improve the usability of the digital experience. Occasionally there will be updates to mapping for example, but for the general rule, the car you drive out of the dealership won’t change one bit until the day it’s scrapped. One manufacturer which skips this trend is Tesla who have taken a different approach.
Tesla famously make use of a rather large 17 inch screen in a portrait orientation and a further screen above the steering wheel. The hardware for both the car and technology is obviously fixed at the point of manufacture, but the software is frequently updated via it’s inbuilt connection (or your wifi network) and brings not just software fixes, but actual visual changes and improvements to the way the car works. The most recent version is V8.01 which brought design changes and completely altered the digital layout on some of the system screens. It also brought along Autopilot improvements (Tesla’s “self driving” system which is currently more of an advanced cruise control), but only to cars with compatible hardware, so some older cars are now incompatible with certain features which brings in a level of obsolescence.
So what can manufacturers do to help bridge this issue of the manufacturing cycle and the continual march of technology?
By being influenced by the tech industry itself.
- Add the same technology across the model variants, no more 5 inch screen on the base model and a 9 inch screen for the percentage of customers who pay for the upgrade (an example would be the 2016 Mercedes E-Class). Differentiate models based on the power/range/interior styling instead. This would help simplify the manufacturing cycle and ensure a consistent experience across the range and reduce the testing burden of multiple variants.
- Add the most powerful hardware available within budget at the time. This would allow for future software updates or new options that you hadn’t considered at the lock down stage.
- Hire great teams of designers and researchers to work on your long term digital experience. Once a car is launched it shouldn’t be forgotten about and the team focused on the next secret model. There should be a greater continued focus on improving and keeping models up-to-date throughout their 5 – 7 year sales lifecycle (with reduced support once the car has come off the new car market, providing support for software bugs and glitches).