Ecosystems

The Road Race For Connected Car Commerce

The potential for commerce applications to be embedded in a car’s dashboard is great. Who hasn’t fantasized about owning a car that can be told to pay for its own gas at the pump or buy the driver a cuppa job at the drive-thru without having to tap, swipe or really even touch anything?

Unfortunately, the gap between that potential and the real-world experience is also great, as voice-activation expert and Sensory CEO Todd Mozer told Karen Webster in a recent conversation.

“The main problem with the voice-activated AI in the car – and all the functions people want to build on it – is that the platforms today just aren’t very good,” Mozer pointed out. “They’re slow, most of them still require a push button to start and they have a hard time with easy commands. Most customers are just better served using their smartphone.”

But that reality, Mozer noted, is showing signs of improvement, as both consumers and OEMs are considering the problem more holistically – and as consumers’ hunger for cars that can do more, particularly in regard to commerce functions, is only growing over time.

That consumer conclusion is borne out in the PYMNTS/Visa How We Will Pay study, which indicates that those seamless, automotive-based commercial interactions are exactly the kind of friction-free, next-generation retail experiences that consumers are hoping the era of smart everything can deliver.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that there has been so much energy of late put toward meeting those demands. This week, General Motors announced its latest leap forward with the introduction of eCommerce to its dashboard operating system.

It’s the latest and greatest in 2017, the year that the road race for car commerce really began in earnest as the contestants are deciding whether they want to pilot their own effort, like GM, or partner with the experts.

GM’s eCommerce Move

GM’s big upgrade will make it possible for drivers to shop and book reservations from their car’s infotainment system, as long as the car they are driving happens to be a 2017 model or later.

The upgrade is already rolling out to Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC models – and is appearing whether or not the car’s owner has a paid in-car Wi-Fi data subscription plan or not.

“This platform is financed by the merchants,” explained Santiago Chamorro, GM’s vice president for global connectedness. GM will be charging merchants an unknown fee to place their apps on GM’s screens, with “some level of revenue sharing” based on each transaction.

As of today, those merchants make up a fairly short list: Dunkin’ Donuts, Wingstop, Shell, ExxonMobil, Applebee’s, and Starbucks, to name a few. There is also the ability to use the app to book reservations, but as of rollout, TGI Friday’s in the only restaurant that has flipped on that capability.

Which, in fact, ties in to the main complaint about GM’s marketplace: that selection of merchants and usable functions is rather limited as of now.

“We will be adding more vendors,” with some coming in the first quarter of 2018, Chamorro noted. He added that commerce is part and parcel of a broader expansion of services to be integrated into its vehicles infotainment system. In the future, those services could include music, news and other information services.

The goal, according to John McFarland, GM’s director of global digital experience and connected vehicles, is not just to build a connected commerce platform for automobiles, but to actually create something that is optimized to be used in an automotive environment, such as one in which the user is driving.

“Rather than somebody having to pull over and get in park to engage on their phone, which causes you to lose valuable time, or even worse, the temptation for people to try to use their phones while driving, which is something that we definitely don’t want … we believe in doing everything we can to make it available while making it safe while in motion,” he said.

To meet that challenge, GM has reportedly designed the eCommerce experience to be easily voice navigable and thus safely usable while driving. It also meant tailoring the marketplace to the drivers’ needs, such as the always popular Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, as well as the connection to upgrades, accessories and care for GM vehicles.

Moreover, GM wants its platform to get smarter over time, learning what users will want to buy, and when they will buy it. A driver who stops for coffee every morning on the way to work, for example, will get a reminder as they are coming up on their preferred caffeine dispensary.

According to McFarland, the focus has been on building something drivers can use while on the road, and something that will better need their needs with time and expansion.

The Looming Competition From Alexa

While GM has decided to build its own in-dash eCommerce marketplace, other players are deciding that such things are better left to the experts. Or, to be more precise, the expert: Amazon’s Alexa.

The 2017 year may be ending with GM’s big announcement about connected commerce, but it started out in January with the joint announcement from Ford and Amazon that they would be teaming up to offer Ford drivers the ability to access their cars via their Alexa systems.

The partnership was designed to allow drivers to listen to audiobooks, search and transfer local destinations to navigation systems, request news, play music and add items to Amazon shopping lists (and even buy them) – all from inside their vehicles.

Instead of trying to build out their own voice-activated AI engine – as GM has done in partnership with IBM – Ford is essentially outsourcing that to Amazon. The first Alexa-powered Ford, the Fusion Energy, was rolled out last spring. And while Amazon’s partnership with Ford is its most extensive with an automaker, the network of connections is quietly growing.

As of now, for example, if you drive a Nissan and lock your keys in the car, Alexa can get you in.

Plus, Alexa’s march into the automobile industry got a big boost this fall when it announced a pair-up with navigation giant Garmin in launching the Garmin Speak, a device similar to the Amazon Echo that is powered by Alexa. The goal was to combine Alexa’s intelligence and usefulness with all of Garmin’s navigation prowess, making it easy for customers to multitask while driving without looking at their phones.

It’s not as smooth as a system that’s built right into the dashboard – instead, it is stuck to the windshield via a suction cup, and does hamper visibility a bit. But it succeeds in providing access to the large, robust universe of Alexa-enabled skills and commerce experiences, without requiring a brand-new car.

So, who will win the connected car commerce race? As we are 12 months into the race in earnest, no one can tell – except, broadly, whoever provides the most utility with the least friction for the customer behind the wheel.

Amazon, at the outset, seem to have an edge, particularly when it comes to inventing commerce experience in a new context for customers. But it’s too early to count out GM and their partner tech firm, IBM, as they have a better native knowledge of drivers and their habits than Amazon does.

It will likely be a race well worth watching – and you could soon be asking your car to tell you who won.

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