Autonomous drive technology system

Experience Design Will Change the Automotive World

The automotive industry – and its products – is undergoing a massive change, not just from a technological perspective but from a general usage standpoint as well. CDR’s Drew Meehan examines how experience design will be all-important in the next phase of personal mobility.

While nobody can be certain of the future of the automobile, it seems fairly clear now that the rise of ride-hailing, ride sharing, EVs, and autonomous vehicles is not likely to wane and will likely change everything about the industry — and possibly of our lives, cities and infrastructure too.

Autonomous EVs now make up the majority of concepts at the major auto shows and billions of dollars, euro and yuan are being poured into making it happen. But one of the biggest changes that will ensue comes from the how we interact with the car in a broader context than simply foldaway steering wheels or giant infotainment screens.

The shift from ownership to usership — such as ride-hailing and car sharing — has increased dramatically in recent years. While taxis (the original ride-hailing service) have long been a feasible alternative to car ownership in big cities like London or New York City, for the majority of the world’s population, the idea of not owning a car isn’t just impractical, it’s unfeasible.

Mercedes-Benz S-Class autonomous test vehicle experience

Services such as Uber, BlaBlaCar, Car2Go, DriveNow and others have all taken on enormous importance in this new reality because they have replaced the ownership of the car — the burden of cost and care — and replaced it with a streamlined experience. It’s not a single problem with a single solution, but the implications for the car industry are already massive. Cars — the objects themselves — are almost universally designed for single-family ownership, even when many go on to live the life of a rental car or a ride-hail.

The numerous autonomous EV concepts we see at the big auto shows don’t seem to take into consideration new ownership models though, despite most experts’ opinions that the shift to self-driving cars will almost surely be accompanied (and likely preceded) by a move to shared mobility. The shift to shared ownership or usership clearly presents new challenges and opportunities for manufacturers, but the shift in design competencies within the OEM studios just hasn’t yet caught up to the reality of where things are headed.

What these new models for usership all have in common is service, and good service experiences don’t just happen on their own. They need to be designed. Service (or experience) design is a seriously under-appreciated discipline (especially in the car industry), but we’re surrounded by its implications.

Whether it’s finding an available charging point and plugging in your EV, or hailing an Uber, the way we deal with the service ‘beyond the car’ and how we interact with its touchpoints inside and out (and before and after) make or break the experiences we have.

Uber app showcases experience design outside of car.

A service designer looks at these interactions — before, during, and after the actual ride, charge, or trip — and figures out where the potential problems will be. They then work out how to make the experience as a whole smoother, and how to match that to a brand’s overall experience.

Ideally, service and experience designers should be integrated into OEM exterior and interior design teams, but also liaise with marketing, product planners and even engineering to enable a consistent and continuous experience throughout the process. The term ‘customer experience’ is often used in business these days, but real end-to-end thinking that enables a seamless journey still seems out of reach for even the top premium brands.

Silicon Valley has already figured out that experience is the difference maker for products, and this is potentially the biggest threat to OEMs as more and more start-ups fight for a space in the automotive landscape. While new brands like Faraday Future, NIO, Lucid or even Tesla may or may not survive long-term, a shift in expectations created by a start-up could be enough to take a few established brands down with them.

As service experience takes over from traditional product experience however, there is a chance for brands to reinvent or reposition themselves in ways that previously wouldn’t have been possible — the perfect car for sharing, the luxury autonomous pod, the ideal ride-hail, the EV that’s easier to charge than others. All of these new niches would rely on complete experiences, not just on the cars themselves.

Many premium brands already have apps, but the experience side of ownership will only continue to grow

While BMW’s ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ tagline might still ring true for some, another brand’s ‘Always the Right Car at the Right Time’ might be even more important as we move forward. When the car itself becomes a cog in a holistic service offering, designers will need to make that offering work smoothly.

Carmakers are understandably worried about this move from objects to experiences, but we at CDR think there are as many opportunities to connect and extend brands as there are challenges to the status quo.

For many, the car is becoming a means to an end rather than a coveted symbol of freedom and success. Manufacturers need to be thinking bigger than the stylized metal box that moves us place to place. In order to create a strong brand that takes us from classic ownership to the new world of usership — while maintaining its image — OEMs will need to look at the bigger picture and start designing for the journey, rather than just the ride.


Founded in 2012, Form Trends tirelessly covers the automotive design industry in all corners of the globe to bring you exclusive content about cars, design, and the people behind the products.