The truth about social media in the car

Christine Mäenpää
Berlin 52° 30' 57.852" N, 13° 22' 37.128" E

Focus groups in the US and Germany reveal a surprisingly uniform opinion about this trend.

Social media has something to offer to pretty much everyone. And the apps can be found almost everywhere – in our homes, on our phones, and in our cars.

Wait... in our cars? It’s true. Carmakers including Honda, Toyota, Audi, and Mercedes have already begun to integrate social media into their connected car offerings. These services are typically built into dashboard systems, allowing drivers to send and receive updates on Facebook, Twitter and more, most of the time using vocal commands.

At HERE, I head the Marketing Intelligence team and we were curious to find out what people think about this trend, so we conducted focus groups asking drivers from the U.S. and Germany for their opinions.

What we found really surprised us. In both countries, we saw an almost uniform rejection of the idea, for three main reasons.

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Social media fatigue

Integrating social media into a car seemed like a gimmick to some or irrelevant to the task of driving.

“What’s the connection with cars?” asked Christoph, a 32-year-old from Germany. “When I’m driving, I don’t want to share anything.”

There's also a sense that integrating social media into a car’s dashboard does not add any valuable functionality beyond what’s already available on smartphones.

Safety concerns

People also thought that receiving and sending updates or messages was potentially dangerous when driving.

“I’m just curious how you would do that in a non-distracting way," said Sophia, a 26-year-old from the U.S. "Because nothing about that sounds non-distracting.”

"I am not allowed to hold my phone while I am driving, in case I get distracted," said Robert, a 35-year-old German driver. "But now I would be pressing things on my display. It is exactly the same type of distraction.”

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Interestingly, in another study, we found that most drivers – while aware of the safety hazards – still text while driving. So compared to texting, social media in the car does not seem to hold as much value.

Although many social media tools integrated into cars are only accessible with vocal commands, it may take some time before social media sheds the stigma of being a hazard in the car. Charles Arthur, technology columnist at The Guardian, recently expressed some concerns about systems that simply recreate a smartphones experience in the car “It’s not a problem if you walk along a street buried in your smartphone. In a car, it can be lethal.”

That might change as we move closer toward automated vehicles, but that’s a topic for another time.

Information overload

Another widespread opinion is that social networks have gotten too big. The unfiltered stream of social media (think of the 580,000 tweets per minute during the 2014 World Cup semi-final between Germany and Brazil) can often feel irrelevant or overwhelming. Whereas social media can help pass the time commuting on the train, focus group participants said that, in the car, it would compete for attention in an already noisy environment (radio, navigation, etc.)

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And that’s just on the receiving end. On the sending end, consumers don’t seem convinced the world would miss much if drivers didn’t post updates from their cars.

“This is what old people would do: they would post, ‘we are on the way’ via Facebook,” said Paul.

Where to go from here?

So overall, we found that social media integration might not yet be a feature that consumers are eagerly waiting for. It was difficult to get past the initial rejection to discuss services they might consider useful.

But when we probed deeper, we touched upon some aspects of social media integration in cars that actually resonated with people. These were mostly location-based services, such as map overlays and viewing friends' photos of the city they were visiting.

“Maybe it is interesting if I could see my friends on the map,” admitted one otherwise skeptical participant.

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Ideally, journeys could be augmented with a social layer of useful, relevant information, such as nearby restaurants recommended by the driver’s friends. Messages and updates related to journeys or events, such as sharing your ETA, or receiving updates about meeting locations and start times, could also be valuable.

While there may always be a degree of apprehension about using social media in the car, the auto industry could win over some skeptics by making safety and relevance – not novelty and noise – the focus of future social media integration.

(Names have been changed to protect participants' privacy.)

Topics: Automotive, Features, Science of Maps

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