Car makers offer new services in the fight for brand relevance

In a world of rapidly changing automobile use, car manufacturers are devising new ways to play a part in their customers' lives

Home life innovation industry Car makers offer new services in the fight for brand relevance

Women drivers are on the increase in India, but many might feel nervous about the risk of their car breaking down on the road at night. The country's largest car maker, Tata, has responded with an emergency breakdown assistance programme for its female customers launched in 14 Indian cities and running from 8pm to 5am. It promises to provide help within 45 minutes of a call and is clearly aimed at making women drivers feel safer on the road.

It's an example of the shifting role of car makers. Where once they just sold cars, now many are offering a whole range of new services – from Tata's Women Assist programme to chauffeurs, from green electricity to coffee-buying apps.

That's in addition to the many manufacturers' subscription schemes. A monthly fee pays for unlimited access to a car, the ability to swap it for a different one – an estate car for a longer trip, for example – and includes all the extra costs of ownership such as maintenance and insurance. It's like renting a car permanently – and turns drivers from owners into users.

Both these moves point to a recognition by manufacturers that our relationship with our cars is changing. Where once vehicles were sold as objects to own, now the emphasis is on bringing out the benefits they give us – mobility, freedom, choice, safety and entertainment, for example – and building our emotional engagement with them. Car makers are clearly hoping that in such a way – and in the face of growing alternatives to personal car ownership, such as car-sharing services and app-based ride-hailing solutions – they will make themselves indispensable.

New ventures

The US luxury brand Lincoln has experimented in Miami with the idea of a chauffeur on demand, at just $30 an hour, who will drive the owner in their own car to a destination and even bring the car home. Such a service delivers some of the benefits of one of the expected next big things – driverless cars – but without having to tackle the still unresolved technical, safety and regulatory issues.

In Belgium, Volvo has become a supplier of electricity. The move, in partnership with clean-energy provider Eneco, is intended to allow Volvo owners peace of mind by charging their cars with environmentally sound electricity; according to the car maker, it also provides the cheapest green energy available.

Digital services

Somewhat more conventionally, Ford in the US has a comprehensive app called FordPass that lets owners locate, lock and unlock their car from their phone, call roadside assistance, schedule maintenance and check petrol and oil levels.

The app also makes it easy for customers to shop for their next car – an idea that Hyundai in the US has taken further, saying it wants to bring “the Amazon experience” to car buying. Its Shopper Assurance allows buyers to work out the value of their current car, apply for a loan and pin down the price of a new car before even entering a showroom.

General Motors, meanwhile, has taken a different direction. Its Marketplace app turns the touchscreen of your car's infotainment system into a buying hub, making it effortless to order a Starbucks coffee, among other things. Presumably to be collected from a drive-through window.

Skills and thrills

For something more petrol-headed, there's Pure McLaren, which tailors racetrack driver coaching to the UK company's hyper-sportscars. The offer ranges from a half-day on the track in a road car to the many days of coaching and six races required to qualify for an international racing licence. There's even a customer racing championship, for those who want to take it to the next level.

Even if only to demonstrate that they are behaving responsibly when selling 180mph machines, quite a few sportscar makers offer similar services, each using their own cars. German manufacturer Porsche, for example, offers bespoke packages for drivers at the Porsche Experience Centre next to the Silverstone circuit in the UK.

Perhaps the ultimate example of that is Bentley's ice-driving programme, on a frozen lake in Lapland, which has surprised many owners with the capabilities of their powerful machines.

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