I recently returned from Detroit 2004 where I moderated several keynote expert panels on consumer needs, usability and the future of vehicle telematics. The conference is an annual event held in Detroit and attracts automotive companies, suppliers and analysts who are all focused on the bleeding edge of the "wired car" a la integrated communications, vehicle diagnostics, entertainment, real-time information and high-speed internet or satellite driven data "piped" to the vehicle.

What is telematics and what does it have to do with usability?
Telematics refers to in-car technology that helps improve the driving or passenger experience. This can include such things as automatic airbag deployment notification, vehicle tracking, personalized driving features, real-time traffic data, emergency aid, satellite radio or video, high speed internet and a variety of other vehicle monitoring systems, entertainment and "location based services".

Users interact with innovative features including Internet access, voice activation, and the ability to control audio and climate from the steering wheel, for instance, or with visual displays and/or buttons on the rear view mirror (as in GM’s Onstar).

Usability becomes important really fast in the automotive interiors environment. Distractions, errors and accidents can cause drivers to veer out of lane, collide or crash. The stakes are high, making driver distraction a core issue in the telematics industry.

If telematics usability is so crucial, why don't OEM auto manufacturers saturate the driving experience with intuitive and pleasurable interfaces? After four years of observing the ups and downs of the emerging Telematics industry with my company Experience Dynamics, I believe these to be the main obstacles:

1) Automotive manufacturing lifecycles surpass consumer trends. A key issue is how to deliver telematics solutions that do not outlive the automobile manufacturing lifespan. Several companies like Daimler Chrysler (U-Connect) and Nokia (Bluetooth) have turned to plug and play telematics that are automobile architecture independent.

2) Usability is not understood as a strategic business resource. The position of a human factors engineer (HFE) in the large automotive company is often technical and not strategic. For example, most of the work being done in the United States by the government and by industry/academia involves safety and driver distraction research.

HFE's have traditionally worked on the Human Machine Interface (HMI) inside the automotive cockpit to improve automotive interiors. Human Factors has always been seen, it seems, as an instrument, not a marketing and business aid. Worse, HFE's are often so "in the trenches" they do not know how to put the imperative telematics user experience into business terms.

3)  Driver behavior and emotion is the killer application. OEM's and Tier One's have been missing the point: Customer experience including behavior, social interaction and emotional response to and interaction with new telematics devices are key requirements for next generation telematics. Understanding the granular details of how customers currently behave with regard to navigation, problem-solving, group and individual communication, entertainment and other factors will define which companies use telematics to strengthen brand loyalty, while accelerating location based service adoption in the post-purchase period.

Consumers Adoption is a Critical issue in Telematics
Experiences with the telematics user experience are difficult for consumers to visualize, understand or imagine. In my keynote at the conference I told a story that resonated with many audience members:

A user once related his experience of telematics to me. He said that after purchasing a new vehicle he was given a survey regarding his preferences for telematics. After about twelve questions, the man ripped up the survey in frustration. He said he didn't know how to answer the questions: Did he want a screen display on the dashboard, where the radio sits, in between the seats or as a heads up display? He didn't know how he would like Mars, so to speak, because he had never been there yet.

A recent study by Frost and Sullivan echoes the finding:

"Basic navigation systems were given top ratings by respondents, with traffic information in particular being regarded as a value enhancer. However, a continuing lack of product knowledge appeared to be hampering the customers' ability to assess the benefits provided by advanced navigation systems".

Only in the last few years have we been exposed to navigation systems, advanced diagnostics and other early signs of telematics. Luxury car owners for six or seven years have been the guinea pigs for new telematics products. The mass market is slowly being introduced to telematics through rental cars, satellite radio and hands-free after-market kits.

Today, according to analysts Frost and Sullivan, 70% of vehicle fleets in Europe are aware of or use telematics, yet "More than half the respondents were uninformed about telematics' ability to improve customer relationship management (CRM) and substantially reduce the insurance premium" reports Telematics Valley.

Top of the Agenda: The Driving User Experience
Many Tier One suppliers that create automotive interiors, such as Johnson Controls, expressed concern for usability and user experience issues at the Telematics conference. This is a quantum leap from several years ago when telematics usability was secondary or absent in conversations. The real challenge now is for human factors telematics researchers to get out of the usability trenches and go for a drive (with the users). Only by transforming the tactical "safety and situation awareness" characteristics of human factors into the strategic "desirability and experiential-based" requirements will usability be able to produce results with a profound effect on business objectives and consumer adoption.

P.S. For more telematics issues, see the telematics usability articles and product reviews I have written for Telematics Update magazine.

Best Wishes,