Testing the Evolving Digital Automotive Experience

Automobile manufacturers are no longer in the business of simply delivering transportation vehicles. Today’s automobile experience is fundamentally inseparable from digital-first user experiences across other industries. Software now plays a crucial role in the operation of and experience with the vehicle.

When digital defects affect the functionality and usability of an automobile in the real world, the repercussions can be severe, including damage to brand reputation and even passenger safety. In this blog, we’ll take a look at some emerging trends in digital automotive experiences and explain how organizations should be approaching the digital quality challenges that come with them.

Infotainment in a mobile world

We’re long removed from the days of cassette tapes and spotty radio service operated by analog knobs. Consumers expect in-car entertainment systems to seamlessly integrate with their devices and preferred apps to enable their lifestyles on the go.

Expect news and entertainment apps to become more commonplace infotainment options from the head unit, as well as functionality for video conference calls. These various integrations require thorough testing to work correctly, especially as a driver (even in self-driving scenarios) will be limited in their ability to debug issues.

Operating systems and platforms like Android Automotive run on in-vehicle hardware to enable these mobile-like experiences. Supporting Android Automotive — even at the expense of the Android Auto app that predates it — or another built-in solution allows car manufacturers to deploy a standard infotainment interface, also called a shield, and streamline the software release process. Some car manufacturers are opting to create their own native platforms and OSes, which creates even more work to validate with real customers. In these cases, rapid feedback from different types of driver personas is immensely valuable to enable the team to iterate on issues over time.

Digitally enhanced driving and maintenance

It’s not all infotainment, however. Consider that some car software systems today collect real-time data to inform the driver about everything from road hazards to speed limits and traffic cameras. The driver’s interaction with an automobile is changing from a purely physical transportation experience to one that is dependent on technology — and that driver will come to rely more on those digital features over time. Testing with real drivers, rather than in a lab setting, ensures you’re delivering accurate, useful information to the person who will actually use the vehicle in the real world.

Whether relying on third-party in-car systems or creating your own, be mindful of the ongoing need for updates and patches. The head unit serves a variety of purposes in modern automobiles. Along with the dashboard, these interfaces enable drivers to optimize their car’s performance while in operation. Drivers use these interfaces to navigate to a destination, check tire pressure or optimize fuel consumption. Make sure the driver can still operate all features of the system during an update. Some car companies update in-car software as often as weekly — this is a standard other teams should try to achieve to fix issues iteratively and mitigate risk or frustration.


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Real-world usability and accessibility

Validating blended digital and real-world driving experiences means also testing the customer journey. There’s no way to simulate the defects a driver might experience, for example, leaving the house, navigating to an EV charging station and ensuring the charge completes after successful payment. While each individual driver’s experience is personal and specific to them, manufacturers face the task of fostering a community of savvy real-world drivers to sufficiently test across the various models, years and demographics of their customers. It’s not enough to test a single update or feature in one location, on one specific model car, as it might not be representative of the challenges — either functional or usability issues — experienced by the broader set of drivers.

To understand the scope of the software testing challenge, let’s take an example from another emerging in-car system: voice recognition. Voice services are perfect fits for automobiles to help reduce driver distractions when using the head unit for navigation or entertainment. However, insufficiently tested voice systems might struggle to understand drivers who speak with accents or less-spoken languages — not to mention the functional issues that sometimes occur with voice technology. Proper localization is not only crucial for data inputs and brand reputation, but also for adhering to local regulations.

Also, bear in mind the need for accessible and usable digital experiences from the head unit, which will likely result in scrutiny and litigation as global regulatory standards evolve. Automobile manufacturers focus their accessibility attention on the safety and physical accommodations of people with disabilities. However, as cars become more digitally enabled, in-car experiences must also be accessible to reduce risk, both in terms of brand reputation and litigation. Make sure accessible features like color contrast, screen reader navigation and other WCAG 2.2 standards are met to provide optimal experiences for your customers.

Keyless solutions and security

Good news for drivers who often lose their car keys: you might not need them anymore. As automotive companies embrace the digital age, they’re often enabling mobile apps to perform certain car features, such as remotely locking or unlocking doors, accessing premium features or starting the car before a drive.

But here’s the bad news: being digital-first means automotive companies must perform thorough, ongoing, comprehensive testing. Some companies will rise to meet this challenge, and others will fail their customers, risk losing a competitive edge, and potentially even expose drivers and passengers to unsafe situations.

As cars become more sleek and digitally enabled, manual door locks are not always easy to find on the inside, which has caused some drivers to get locked in their car if the mobile app/device isn’t working properly. The same goes for drivers who might get locked out of their cars if the mobile app performs poorly, perhaps in low-connectivity situations, or the device stops working. Car keys work to near perfection — thus, the user will expect mobile apps to achieve the same level of success and to provide answers to their problems, not create more of them.

Most car mobile apps use either near-field communication or ultra-wide band technology to lock/unlock doors, even while offline. These technologies are convenient, but arguably expose the vehicle to more security vulnerabilities, as these signals might be intercepted, impersonated or manipulated. The only way for car manufacturers to ensure that a phone unlocks the intended car — and only the intended car, and only authorized phones can unlock it — is to test in real-world situations. For example, how easily and securely can a driver with the latest mobile device unlock their car, and only their car, in a crowded underground city parking garage? How about a rural driver with an older-model phone in a remote, limited-connectivity area? And how resilient are these systems to attempted attacks via intrusion testing or another method?

Digital solutions such as biometric scanning could reduce these security risks, but these too must be validated in real-world situations with a representative sample of drivers. For example, biases in systems have historically introduced challenges for users of different ethnicities when it comes to facial recognition.

Successful subscriptions and payments on all devices

While mobile app functionality is an intriguing option in the future of driver experiences, it necessitates a fundamentally different approach to quality assurance to succeed in-market. Consider the massive scale of devices that must be able to operate the mobile app all around the world — thousands of distinct device-OS combinations in an incredibly fragmented global marketplace — a problem that will only worsen in the years to come. Functional testing on the largest share of relevant devices possible helps reduce defects drivers experience, including those that present the safety, security and usability challenges presented above.

But the work doesn’t end there. With many industries switching to a subscription-based payment model — and the automotive industry dabbling in that space — these companies, like media brands before them, must now take on the challenges of becoming subscription management companies. What that means is meeting subscriber expectations, the first time and every time. So, when a refund fails to process, or a popular payment instrument isn’t accepted, those situations create friction with the customer, which might prompt service purchase abandonment or cancellation, or even foster brand resentment that persuades future car purchases.

Payment testing with real in-market instruments and real drivers can help identify points of friction before they occur. These transactions cannot be simulated, as the complexities of modern payment transacting only reveal themselves in live flows. Issues can occur with the driver’s payment input, payment processor, the payment system or banks. Real-world payment testing is also essential if the app includes a feature to pay for gas, parking or EV charging stations, which involve additional banks or processors in the payment flows — labs can’t simulate these scenarios.

Mobile-enhanced automotive experiences might be new to many drivers and to the companies that manufacture them, but they lean on years of established history with mobile apps across various industries. When it comes to a digital-fluent customer base that expects ease of use, automobile manufacturers must rise to meet the road with mobile apps and in-car experiences that meet expectations and exceed competitor capabilities.

The road ahead

The digital automotive experience has arrived. Customers expect feature-rich, always-on digital automotive experiences that enhance their transportation. In the race to differentiate from other brands, we can expect that additional features like biometrics and voice recognition systems and assistants will become more common in later build cycles.

Self-driving cars will also become more common, which potentially means another whole ecosystem of apps, integrations and more. In-car experiences, navigation and alerts might have to adapt to changing customer expectations in this emerging form of transportation.

In-car payment systems installed right into the head unit will also complicate payment validation for car companies. For example, a driver that pays ahead for fuel will expect that the transaction occurs without issue, and that the merchant or kiosk will provide quick and easy fulfillment — further establishing the importance of customer journey and payment testing.

You can’t build a community of testers overnight, but you can access one.

Applause is ready to help automobile manufacturers exceed their digital quality goals in this complicated and evolving landscape. With more than one million testers all around the world, Applause can source drivers matching your defined demographics, devices, makes, models and more.

Applause is unrivaled in its ability to source testers for functional, usability, customer journey, localization, accessibility or payment validation, lending a hand wherever and whenever you need to scale testing efforts. Our digital community of experts provides actionable insights delivered right into your bug tracking system.

Save a seat for Applause, and let’s navigate a path to better digital quality.

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Maria Mondragon Marquez
Solutions Consultant, Applause
Reading time: 12 min

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