On Interior Sensors & Enhanced Customer Understanding


March, 2018

We are accustomed to hearing vacation cruise lines, international airlines, high-speed train systems and luxury hotels talk about the extreme ease and comfort that they will bring to your journey and destination. The price and commitment is high and most repeat consumers are discerning and have a preferred provider (brand) in each category.

And they should because the big players and leaders in these industries have taken the time to study their customers, understand what makes them tick and they continuously invest in an infrastructure of constant improvement of their space, services, interactions and systems to better suit these customers. They have designed an intentional space and set of interactions that when done right, create a desired feeling. If you are their customer, then you expect them to recognize you, know who you are, acknowledge your needs and continuously improve their interactions as a result of feedback from you that produces tangible results. You are willing to give feedback to those that you care about the most or those that have completely pissed you off.

Now cut to products and services of smaller spaces and services that you use more frequently and for perhaps shorter trips. Each American on average spends 46 minutes traveling per day. And greater than 15 million of us use ride sharing or car sharing (shared mobility) each year. The vehicle, transportation and mobility landscapes are shifting quickly and competition will continue to get fiercer. So, if you haven’t already, you will soon hear each of the automotive manufacturers and shared mobility companies saying that “we design our products and services with the customer at the center of everything we do.” We are customer driven and your satisfaction and loyalty is our #1 goal. That is a strong proclamation, so let’s dig deeper into how this commitment might come to life.

To inform the next upgrade or system version or even a new product or service offering, companies do broad and deep qualitative and quantitative research to get a sense of the wants, needs and expectations of their target markets. They study people, families and communities in the wild and they track trends – including sociological, cultural, aesthetic, economical and most importantly technological. They then design customer profiles, personas, archetypes, actor descriptions and / or aspirational customers. Teams then apply iterative ideation, prototyping and consumer testing procedures while following process models called “waterfall” or “agile” or “guerrilla UCD” or something of the like.

In regards to physical vehicles, OEMs only know a little bit about how customers really directly interact with their products and its features and most of this knowledge may relate to the digital systems (i.e. touch screens). The actual first-time use, frequency of use, path flow of interaction and driver intent is still a mystery.

This low level of direct understanding of customer intent and interaction is not atypical as product manufacturers have often had these hurdles to overcome. In the telecom industry, the carriers know much more about real customer behavior and they more or less own the direct dialogue with the customer. In essence when you put your device “on their network” or buy a device from them to work “on their network”, they take-over the mobile brand relationship. Imagine someday being able to choose from many auto manufacturers to “run your Google or Amazon or Microsoft corporate” ecosystem. We are seeing the early signs of this now as multi-brand vehicle subscription services become more popular – allowing you to choose a different vehicle type and brand based on your need or your whim. The whimsical example that you might want to drive a red car on Valentine’s Day is my favorite (and also least favorite).

Unfortunately, automobile companies are falling into similar circumstances as they bring new services into their vehicles. Voice interaction companies are probably not going to let every manufacturer that integrates their service know what is being said in and around their products. They are not going to reveal who is in the vehicle when, who says what and why. Nor are they going to divulge what services are used and what products are purchased from within the vehicle. All of this is no doubt “up for negotiation”, but the service provider has the advantage of scale and in many cases exponential adoption and usage rates.


Investments in Interior Sensors Now will Yield Value Later

So, let me get to the point. In 2016 the average new vehicle sold had an average of 34 exterior sensors. Outside the vehicle, these sensors can detect the surrounding traffic, the behavior of the vehicle directly in front of you, the movement of pedestrians, and other objects like walls, bicycles or approaching vehicles. Some can detect heat signatures and many advanced sensors are mapping the world around the vehicle as it moves. The investment and emphasis has been on continuously improving safety and awareness (around the vehicle) systems. Generations of technologies have evolved and a lot has been learned about positioning, processing, combining technologies, interpreting situations and more.

Based on this promise of human-centered design, OEMs need to rigorously pursue a path of continuously increasing the volume of customer behavior data capture, analysis, understanding and direct feedback to product, feature and experience enhancement. The closed loop of continuous learning and enhancement is a necessity to thrive. Research teams at major universities, like MIT-AVT, are demonstrating the value of these efforts. As sensor hardware, processing efficiency, algorithms and triangulations of inputs get more sophisticated (particularly in mobile devices), new scenarios of understanding need to be defined and acted upon. Some of these might include …

·       Invest more in inward-facing cameras – focus on the drivers face and especially their eyes and eyelids. Understand what is happening in the 2nd and 3rd rows. 3-D map the interior of the vehicle and identify what has been “brought in” to the vehicle by the driver and/or passengers. Move beyond driver state monitoring to identify all passengers, their state, activities, devices and more – in both the front and rear seats.

·       Imagine that along with the notification of your autonomous taxi getting close is a live video feed to the interior. Were you expecting it to be empty or for a friend to be on-board? Is there someone that you don’t particularly want to interact with in the pool ride?

·       Invest in alternative audio recorders (either hardware and/or channels) that record everything said in a vehicle – by both the human occupants and the digital assistants. I use the word “assistants” because in some of today’s cars, you can access Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and an embedded / on-board voice system all in the same vehicle.

·       Invest more heavily in seat-belt and seat sensors that better track passenger heart-rates and pressure points? To better recognize and identify individuals and monitor their well-being.

·       Recognize the device types in the vehicle – stored-in or brought-in. Understand which devices are connected and which are not. Understand the hierarchy of driver permissions to devices (and individuals). Understand the frequency of device-to-vehicle connection and the content that is accessed and interacted with.

·       Triangulate facial expressions with voice tonality to better understand driver and passenger emotion and mood state.

·       Triangulate the attention level of the driver with the situations evolving outside of the vehicle and modulate the driver’s workload.

·       Understand the activities that are performed while in the vehicle. Anecdotal observation has stated that it is the easier to complete items at the top of your To Do list.


If the Customer Gives, then the Customer Gets

It is an interesting time where the justification of the investment of these “enablers” (sensors, cameras, processors) may not be so clearly recognized, but their value will be realized in time. The trade-off of value ought to be realized (and transparent) to both the customer and the manufacturer. And the customer should always know and trust that all of this collected information will be kept private and only used for the betterment of their experience.

Product development decision makers should anticipate that more dimensions of data capture will result in more dimensions of customer understanding. The engineering of these types of enablers have yet to be realized in truly artful and integrated ways but I trust that new design languages will emerge quickly - moving beyond bolted-on plastic housings and communicating new affordances of “intelligence”. Through collection, analysis, hypothesis, experimentation and learning, I am confident that the mid and long-term strategic value of this data collection will be realized. And tell your customers, “We capture this information so that we can provide you this value or service or assistance or intelligence. We think that it is valuable because … If you opt-out, then this will not be available.” Be transparent in what is being captured, why and how your customer can remain in control. Get smarter and connect with your customers at a deeper level through knowing more and offering more contextually relevant and clever systems.


Product, Service & Emotional Systems Design Consulting & Collaboration - for the Automotive & Mobility industries