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Can OEM branding survive the onslaught of the Virtual Personal Assistants?

“Why do I have to remember all of my car's voice commands? Can’t I just ask Siri/Google/Alexa/Cortana?”

When SBD first began actively tracking automotive implementations of virtual personal assistants (VPA), this was the big question consumers were asking. If their phones, their speakers, even their thermostats, are capable of reacting to simple, intuitive commands… why aren’t their cars?

In a recent SBD survey of consumer attitudes towards connected services, more than 20% of respondents rated VPAs as the feature they were most interested in for their next in-vehicle infotainment system, highlighting just how important it is for any OEM marketing itself as ‘tech-capable’ to be able to meet that consumer demand. For vehicle manufacturers, the question is now becoming “How can we maintain our brand image, customer loyalty, and profitability when key differentiators, like the voice interface and connected services, are being eroded by the big tech companies?” If an OEM runs its own VPA service, will it just fall behind the consumer VPAs? If an OEM refuses to enable consumer VPAs, will it lose customers to brands that already have? For many OEMs, enabling VPAs in their existing smartphone remote access and controls is a simple step, while directly integrating a tech-branded VPA into their vehicles feels like a step too far. Research has shown in-car VPA functionality in the USA is mostly tech-branded, whereas in China, OEMs are predominantly favoring OEM-branding. Interestingly, Europe is focusing on both, with a slight lean towards OEM.

Can a white-label system ever hope to match the big tech services?

Considering the vast amount of conversational and intent data being processed by the big tech services every second, can Houndify, Nuance, or Watson ever hope to compete with Google Assistant and Alexa’s functionality, content, and core AI? Does it matter if they do? An efficient, fun and effective VPA is surely only relevant if it connects to the services you need it to. Much like the rest of the consumer electronics world, having the best functionality and services may not be as important as having access to the most popular ones – so implementing a great white-label VPA interface that’s unable to connect to users’ cloud services, like messaging, music and calendar, or to their other devices, may leave OEMs struggling to deliver perceived consumer value for their development cost. So, how are car-makers approaching this seemingly impossible balancing act? SBD has worked with several OEMs and their suppliers in recent years to help find the right strategy for their overall technology goals, helping them to understand whether they should:

  • Keep control of the VPA experience - connect to the most popular apps and services via white-label providers.

  • Take the interface and branding battle elsewhere - use platforms which brand the in-vehicle interface to the vehicle, but leave the connection to the external world to the big tech VPAs.

  • Target consumer affection - enable the main tech VPAs and let consumers decide which ones to use for any given request. These companies may aim to push brand superiority by owning the overall experience, with avatars and non-voice interface components seamlessly supporting the conversation, while worrying less about which VPA is on the other end of the data connected.

“It’s the OEMs with a clear idea of how a VPA best supports their overall connected service interface that have the best chance of using VPA to maintain or enhance their brand positioning” says Kurt Dusterhoff, Senior Connected Car Specialist at SBD Automotive. “The ones that lack clarity can probably expect an expensive implementation of technology, and possibly a brand that consumers may ultimately reject.”


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