Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes? Turn and face the customer
Much of the recent discussion around future transportation has been focused on the (rapidly) changing market landscape; the impact of new technologies and services (rideshare, carshare, electric, autonomous); and how industry is going to translate all this promise into real products and solutions that consumers can and will use.
From cutting-edge startups to the Fortune 100, the technorati blogs trumpet disruptive products and synergistic partnerships that promise transform the transportation landscape. But as interesting as these discussions about the future are, there is a lack of discussion around a key topic has stood out to me and continues to this day.
A massive amount of capital has been invested in the ‘connected car’ era and this is not limited to vehicles. The infrastructure (networks, sensors, etc.) required to support these technologies will probably dwarf the investment in the products themselves. But as we race towards the next breakthrough we need to consistently ask ourselves one fundamental question. Do consumers want (or need) any of these new technologies that we are creating?
Even if we assume that these new electric and/or autonomous vehicles are demonstrably “better,” the technological landscape of the past is littered with examples of superior technologies that didn’t win out. Betamax lost to VHS. Our beloved QWERTY keyboards proved to be too slow. Many audiophiles still lament the demise of vinyl. There is no guarantee that these new mobility technologies will be automatically adopted by consumers. It will take concerted effort by industry, government and science to understand what the modern citizen needs and expects from their transportation experience and then foster the creation of an environment where that can become reality.
Take for example electric vehicles. While many see a cleaner, more ecological future through the reduction of fossil fuel consumption, those benefits are realized at a societal level. What advantages will electric vehicle manufacturers put forward so that individual customers choose their technology? Or will they rely on regulation and government intervention to impose their technology on customers?
This is not to say that the whims and wants of the consumer should drive research and development. Throughout history, amazing new products that we didn’t even know we wanted or needed (Facebook, iPhone) have transformed the fundamental tenants of culture. But… the origins of those creations were the result of understanding how to solve a gap in our lives and marrying that with breakthrough product design. Regardless of how those companies arrived at their insights, they knew deeply what their customers needed. To succeed, we need to leverage more of that kind of user-centric thinking as we create the ‘transportation experience’ of the future.