From autonomous cars to using your mobile phone as your car key, the future is getting closer and closer, says the chief digital officer of Renault Patrick Hoffstetter.
Cars share many characteristics with smartphones in 2015 when you consider the technology that goes into them – mapping, wireless networks, entertainment services, telecommunications, telemetrics, apps and more.
In the tech press today there is hardly a day that goes by when you don’t hear about self-driving, autonomous vehicles and, increasingly, pivotal tech events like CES and Mobile World Congress are dedicating more and more space to car technology.
For €40bn a year French car manufacturer Renault the rise of digital technologies means the consumer has to be in the driving seat more than ever.
As the car industry transitions from mechanical to digital, the need for speed is being morphed into terms like user experience, not just in the car or the garage but on the smartphone and the tablet.
Masterminding Renault's digital future
At the heart of this transition at the 116 year-old carmaker is Patrick Hoffstetter, the company’s chief digital officer who is masterminding how the company communicates with consumers across smart devices and in the car.
One of the key transitions is moving marketing from mass market, mass media, to mobile marketing and social media. In the past few years, for example, the French auto giant has notched up 20m fans on Facebook and millions of followers on other mediums like Twitter.
Hoffstetter is defining the digital strategy for Renault and has established Renault’s Digital Factory, where programmers, UX designers, marketing people and technical architects work to establish common threads that link apps with acceleration.
Across Europe the carmaker is stealing a leaf from Apple’s retail strategy and efforts like the Genius Bar by equipping staff in dealerships and garages with tablet computers to improve the sales experience.
Prior to joining Renault four years ago, Hoffstetter led the development effort for Eurostar and was international strategy director for SNCF. He entered the digital world as director of marketing at French telecoms player SFR.
He was in charge of products and services for Yahoo! Europe and also served as vice president for Europe at Lastminute.com.
Hoffstetter is co-founder of the eG10 club, which is comprised of 12 chief digital officers from different sectors.
He was in Dublin last week to address the 3XE Digital conference on Mobile Marketing.
Merging digital with mechanical
He describes the Digital Factory concept as a kind of “Noah’s Ark” in terms of the different skillsets at Renault. “It’s a centre of expertise where we pull together all our experts on social, mobile, e-commerce and connected cars. We are centrally based in Paris but we connect with partners across the global to develop the overall digital customer experience.”
He said the challenge is to join up the offboard and onboard experience customers will see both outside and inside Renault vehiciles.
“It emerged first through our engineering and R&D teams because they were starting to see a joint vision in terms of the architecture between the onboard and offboard experience.
“The challenge is not just to make the car itself connected but making sure that the apps in the car match up with the apps on your smartphone and tablet.”
He said the use of the words “Digital Factory” was intentional because Renault is a traditional car manufacturer with many traditional silos.
“We are an industrial company and by using ‘factory’ it is saying that digital is becoming as important as the traditional manufacturing process.”
The era of the connected car
Renault's Zoe electric car
As car manufacturers go, Renault is a broad church, making cars that range from luxury cars like the Latitude and Laguna to sports utility vehicles like the Captur and mini cars like the Clio.
The company has also expanded into electric vehicles with popular models like the Zoe and the fun and futuristic looking Twizy.
And just around the corner are autonomous, self-driving vehicles.
“Most of our work is focused around understanding and amplifying the overall consumer purchase funnel and understanding those moments of truth that lead to people buying a Renault vehicle.
“It’s all about community and moments of truth and our CEO Carlos Ghosn’s motto is ‘OAO’ for overall opinion. So part of the digital transformation is getting the whole company focused on OAO when it comes to Renault, the company, the products and the brand and that’s a major cultural change.”
Hoffstetter says innovation is in Renault’s DNA and the company has been noted for historical firsts, including the first turbo engine and the first use of remote key technology.
“In the Zoe, for example, there are at least 200 patents. What is new now is that we don’t just innovate on the hardware side we innovate on the service side so we are creating a consistent experience whether you call a call centre, visit a website, talk to a dealer or chat with us on Facebook or Twitter, the key is to give people precise information.”
I ask him if the Renault Store concept which will see dealers equipped with iPads borrowed heavily from the Apple Store. “Was the Apple Store a lesson? I don’t know if it was a lesson but for us it set a benchmark. Things like the Genius Bar have certainly been an inspiration for us.”
I am the passenger, and I ride and I drive
Renault's novel new Twzy electric car
Hoffstetter said that Renault already has a relationship with Facebook in terms of bringing notifications into the car and is currently in discussions with Deezer and Spotify about boosting Renault’s onboard entertainment experiences.
Apps are also being developed aimed at improving the driving experience both in and out of the car, such as providing smartphone information such as how was your driving, information on battery charges and vehicle diagnostics.
But where most minds in the tech industry are focused right now is on the self-driving car.
Hoffstetter says Renault’s vision is slightly different to the one being peddled by Google et al.
“We see the car as the sixth screen. Our vision of the autonomous car is not so much about a car that will drive you through the city, but more about giving you time with your infotainment. You are still driving the car but in some instances you will be able to be autonomous and retrieve your focus from pure driving in order to consume services.
“We don’t talk about autonomous driving the same way most people in the media are talking about it. We believe you should also have the capacity to go back to driving much like an airline pilot or a train driver can enjoy automated functions but switch back to manual at any time.”
He said that the horizon for autonomous vehicles is getting closer all the time. “When I first joined conversations about autonomous vehicles we were looking out to 2025 or 2030, now we’re talking in the next decade, certainly. We are already doing pilots and testing self-driving cars. But the commercial launch will depend on talks with authorities, governments and there are massive questions from a legal perspective.
“The whole model of car ownership may even change and there are consumer trends emerging from digital that are going to be quite transformative.”
Revving up for change
Closer to now, however, Hoffstetter revealed new developments from the point of view of remote control locking.
“We are about to launch the ability to unlock your car with your mobile phone. We can’t give you the precise date. In terms of using your mobile phone as a car starter, we’re working on that.
“But the range of services coming down the line are incredible; as well as locking and unlocking with your phone you will be able to pre-heat your car in winter by tapping on your smartphone.”
Other developments that are likely to come on stream soon, he said, include the use of 3D printers. “This will be especially important for older models so instead of contacting our factories for spare parts you can just print them off in 3D which is easier and more convenient for us and consumers.”
Another key trend is personalisation. “For example with the new Clio and Captur there are over 200 potential combinations in terms of apps and colour schemes on dashboards and lighting and people love that that tend is being enabled by digital.
“Consumers are also using digital tools like 3D configuration software to design their perfect vehicle and interior and send that to a dealer or share on Facebook. So there’s a whole new way of interacting with the product and a whole new way to go to market,” he concluded.
“This is not science fiction, but something that has been developed by our engineering teams and our digital teams and it’s happening now.”