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Technology/Services

Can Manufacturers Bring Commerce to the Car Safely?

Oil companies partner with automakers to established connected-car user base

DETROIT -- The car driver is a captive audience—which makes connected-car technology a truly liberating development.

Connected car refers to a vehicle with an internet connection, either brought in by the driver via their mobile phone or built into the car’s user interface. It’s a capability that vehicle manufacturers, retailers and tech providers are chasing with gusto as they attempt to grab drivers’ attentions—and their dollars—in an increasingly distracting world.

Royal Dutch Shell began exploring connected-car applications in 2014 through a 12-station pilot with Volkswagen in Germany. The two, in partnership with enterprise software provider SAP, created a cloud-based app that allows drivers to locate a Shell station and pay for fuel through the vehicle’s touchscreen interface.

“We sat down and looked at how this would potentially change the face of commerce,” says Stuart Blyde, Shell’s global innovation manager, who is based in London.

Intrigued by the early results, Shell next partnered with Jaguar and Land Rover in the United Kingdom on an in-car payment app that allows drivers to pay for fuel through the vehicle’s touchscreen instead of paying at the pump or in the store. Users pay with PayPal, Apple Pay or Android Pay. An electronic receipt appears on the car’s touchscreen and is emailed to the user.

Shell refers to these first two efforts as “brought-in” connected-car commerce models, in which the consumer brings their own mobile device into the vehicle and can operate it remotely from the car’s touchscreen.

“The connection that eventually unlocks the fuel pump will come from the end user’s actual mobile device,” Blyde says. The internet connection originates from the phone’s SIM card. In 2017, Shell partnered with General Motors (GM) on its first “built-in” application—in which the internet connection is built into the vehicle—as part of the auto manufacturer’s new Marketplace commerce platform, which is tied to its OnStar in-car information service (image above).

Shell was eager to partner with GM because of its long-established connected-car user base and different approach to the technology.

“To be successful, companies need to collaborate with partners they see will bring intelligence and expertise to the table,” Blyde says.

Whereas Volkswagen, Jaguar and Land Rover took the brought-in approach because it provides a faster, easier route to the connected-car space, GM’s built-in strategy reflects its years of investment in OnStar. Through the Shell app on Marketplace, drivers can locate the nearest Shell-branded site, review station amenities and plug into Fuel Rewards savings through the vehicle touchscreen.

Marketplace also hosts several other merchants and capabilities. Users can locate an ExxonMobil gas station, preorder a Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, make a dinner reservation at TGI Fridays or buy

an oil change from their local GM dealer, for example. Its goal: Make the most out of the time trapped behind the wheel.

“On average, we each spend 46 minutes a day in the car,” says Rick Ruskin, senior manager of Marketplace for Detroit-based GM. “For those of us who have long commutes, I’d like to figure out ways to maximize my time in the car.”

By the end of 2018 , GM expects to have Marketplace available in nearly 4 million model-year 2017 and 2018 Chevy, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles. That’s more than half of the vehicles GM is manufacturing today.

GM has partnered with three platform providers—Xevo, Conversable and Sionic Mobile—to help merchants integrate their content into Marketplace. Bellevue, Wash.-based Xevo is serving as a Real-Time Interaction Gateway (RIG), or middleware, between the Marketplace platform and Shell’s transactional interface. It delivers the major oil’s content through the cloud and onto the dashboard.

P97 is providing payment services for Shell in Marketplace, allowing drivers to ultimately pay for their gasoline through the dashboard interface. It’s a capability on tap for 2018.

From the standpoint of Don Frieden, CEO of Houston-based P97, the Marketplace application is not simply a shortcut to buying fuel.

“We’re not just looking at it as a ‘buy gas’ event, but taking friction out of the consumer journey,” says Frieden. “What’s really exciting is when you look at how it can transform peoples’ lives,” he says. “Being able to order and prepay from the comfort of your car and having food delivered out to your car is pretty transformational, especially if you have parents with kids in the car.”

A connected-car commerce platform such as Marketplace allows major fuel brands to build more loyal relationships with consumers by providing special offers, rewards and incentives as they execute their journey, Frieden says.

Meanwhile, it can also provide technology partners with information about the consumer’s journey and how they can ease it. For example, if the low-fuel indicator turns on in the vehicle, the system could prompt messaging to consumers to buy fuel in their direction of travel.

Given the real dangers of distracted driving, the vehicle dashboard also offers a more easily controlled and structured way to enable such transactions than using a mobile phone.

“Everyone knows how unsafe it is to use your phone in the vehicle,” says Ruskin. “We’re trying to build an alternative that was designed and tested.”

The Marketplace user interface was created with the idea that to make the process safer, it needs to be simpler. Automobile manufacturers have specific rules, based on research, on how to build interfaces to avoid distracting the driver. For example, content providers must minimize the number of options that are displayed for a consumer.

“You’ll notice their apps typically only have a maximum of three options, allowing consumers to strategically pick the option that they want,” Frieden says.

“Our drivers tend to order from a very limited scope of products,” says Ruskin. “I have two or three things that I typically order from Starbucks. If it’s hot, I’m ordering cold drinks. If it’s cold, I’m ordering hot drinks. … Because I know that those are the things I want, it’s really easy for me to serve that up on the dashboard of a car.”

Here’s a typical scenario: Mom is driving home from work and gets a call over the vehicle’s Bluetooth-enabled phone functionality from her husband to pick up coffee. She presses the Marketplace logo on her SUV’s touchscreen, selects the Starbucks app and in three clicks orders and pays for two cups of the usual for pickup via the drive-thru. The order is waiting for her when she arrives.

Parking is another example in which safety can be enhanced. Marketplace features Parkopedia, a parking-services provider that helps drivers find, reserve and pay for parking spaces. Mapping technology allows it to suggest parking options to drivers via the vehicle dashboard as they get ready to end their journey.

“It’s actually enhancing the way that the consumer navigates to their final parking place, so they’re not driving around looking for parking places,” Frieden says. “We’ve already identified a parking spot in the direction of travel on the same side of the road that allows them to very quickly and safely pull into that spot.” Or, if a user is returning a rental car, they can get fueling options on the way to the airport.

“The focus is two things: making sure that we minimize choices that would distract the driver, and also put the intelligence and logic into these applications that make it even safer than the way that we drive around looking for parking or fuel today,” he says.

Where can Marketplace go from here? “We’ll go not only where the merchants want us to go, but also where drivers are telling us they want us to be,” Ruskin says. For example, some retailers may want to offer ordering and curbside pickup of food and beverages through the platform, especially those without drive-thrus.

Over the next couple of years, Shell expects to partner with more car manufacturers on their connected-car applications. In the longer term, Blyde would like to explore the opportunities related to “next-generation” automotive interface platforms such as Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto apps: “When will we get to put those experiences onto those other platforms that are not necessarily just owned by the car manufacturers?”

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