Consumers Are at the Center of the New Auto Ecosystem

Now that many technologies in vehicles are digital, rather than mechanical, parts can be created faster, modified with precise data feedback, and updated more quickly in order to more closely track consumer demand.
05/24/2016 11:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2017

Have you bought a car recently?

If you have, you've seen how technologically advanced they've become. Automakers are using communications technologies to unleash data and create exciting changes that are making us safer on the roads, reducing our carbon footprints, and improving our quality of life.

Here are a few things you may notice when you head to a showroom:

Connectivity is the first thing you may see. Vehicles are being outfitted with wifi that allows us to access the internet to our hearts' content; satellite-linked mapping systems that route us more efficiently on the roads; and apps on our phones that can lock and unlock vehicles. (And soon, that connectivity is expected to allow vehicles that 'talk' to stoplights and other infrastructure).

Better use of data is another trend you'll see. Data is enabling our cars to become 'ultimate mobile devices' by giving us real-time traffic information; allowing us to monitor our vehicles' components to help them run better; providing links to emergency services; and much more.

These and other connectivity- and data-leveraged technologies are more than just great new products; they also highlight how the consumer's role in the auto industry is fundamentally changing.

The pace at which many of these technologies can be modified to fit the consumer - combined with their power to personalize the driving experience - are placing consumers at the center of the automotive value chain.

Take, for example, the process of vehicle design. In years past, working the design of a vehicle from the idea stage to production took about five to seven years, owing to the complexity and durability requirements of the machines. (A car's first job is to get you from one place to another in one piece, after all.)

But now that many technologies in vehicles are digital, rather than mechanical, parts can be created faster, modified with precise data feedback, and updated more quickly in order to more closely track consumer demand.

In addition, this new marketplace where products are more tailored to - and under the power of - consumers, has attracted companies that want to compete to please consumers. This competition, in turn, spurs the quicker development of even more technologies.

It is not just the consumer's relationship with companies that has changed. This new ecosystem has turned the traditional model of product regulation on its head.

Take the example of innovative safety improvements such as driver assist technologies, which use real-time data from sensors to apply the brakes in emergency situations. Many new cars already include this feature, and recently all major automakers pledged to have these technologies in their vehicles by 2020 - all without a regulation being written.

The head of the federal government agency responsible for auto industry oversight, the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA), recently told Congress this agreement means these safety technologies will be in cars three years sooner than if the government had pursued the usual regulatory methods.

In the case of driver-assist technologies - which are the first steps to bringing automated functions to vehicles - automakers competed to add more features to vehicles in order to keep up with consumer demand. As they did, the need for new government mandates was surpassed by the auto industry's rapid development of new technologies.

It was this market-driven, consumer-oriented push to make cars safer that created the foundation for the government and the industry to form their collaborative agreement.

In this new automotive world, it isn't only consumers' relationships with those who work for them in industry and government that are changing. Now consumers also have more responsibility for how they interact with their vehicles and others on the road. Consumers must exercise their use of new technologies - and the powers that come with them - thoughtfully.

Distracted driving is an obvious example. A driver's first responsibility is to pilot a vehicle safely on the roads, rather than manipulating devices brought into the vehicle. And even when not driving, consumers should be thoughtful about using technologies that connect their cars safely - for instance, by refusing to plug insecure aftermarket devices to cars' OBD ports that would endanger the vehicle's cyber security.

The next couple of decades will see dramatic changes to the technologies we use to get from one place to another. With consumers at the center of this new world, we will continue to see rapid innovation that will save lives, save time, save money, and save fuel, and ushering in an exciting, more productive era of transportation.