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Talking Connected Cars with Kia's CTO

July 6, 2015
Henry Bzeih, CTO for Kia Motors America, says the biggest challenge right now with connected vehicles is getting two tons of moving parts to work as smoothly as a smartphone.  

The head of Connected Car and chief technology officer for Kia North America, Henry Bzeih has a tall order to fill--making vehicle technology work in a way that's safe, contains costs, is convenient, and has just enough pizzazz that consumers actually look forward to their slog to work.

A sought-after speaker for his outlook on where the connected car is headed—and ways for manufacturers to navigate that landscape--Bzeih has led telematics at Kia since 2009. Previously, he was head of R&D for applications and multimedia and infotainment cross-vehicle organization at Ford Motor Company. There, he oversaw R&D for infotainment/vehicle communications and navigation systems. He began his career as an electrical engineer for automotive supplier Yazaki, then moved to electrical engineering R&D at Ford. 

During a breather between panels at the TU-Automotive Connectivity Conference in Novi, Michigan in early June, we talked to him about the realities of the connected car.

Q: There’s a disconnect right now between what connected cars could be, and what’s possible and profitable in the foreseeable future.  And Kia is in an interesting position because your brand is built on quality and affordability, not the latest luxury feature. How do you decide which technology consumers will actually want to pay for and use, and what they won’t buy because it’s not useful or intuitive enough?

Sometimes there’s a white space in terms of the unmet needs or expectations of the customer. We struggle with knowing exactly what they’re looking for, and we tend to make the decision for them. But when their expectations and what we deliver are not aligned, the consumer becomes frustrated and it creates unhappiness with the brand.

It’s a tough balance to be able to actually bridge customer expectations in this space with the job you’re doing every day. The reason I say that is because people get accustomed to the smartphone--essentially they run their whole life through it. They get to the car, and the car is delivering a fraction of what they’d like to see. Whatever fraction we’re providing is not good enough. The experience is not intuitive. It’s not a very user-friendly ecosystem. It’s clunky because you’ve got to focus on the job at hand, which is driving and balancing that with digesting content in the car. We’re almost like, ‘Here’s some content; go ahead and use it. ‘ But it’s really on a collision course with the core job, which is to drive.

So how do we bring the whole thing together--where you are focused on the job of driving but at the same time you’re able to consume and digest content safely and intuitively without having to learn a new language like voice recognition or gestures? That’s the tough question.

Q: Is Kia making any progress on that?

A: We have some ideas. We think that for the consumer to truly digest content in the car, you need to have the car think independently from the driver. Those are important requirements. I don’t care how good you get the human-machine interface, how good you get the user experience. To truly realize the value of content in the car, the car has to think independently. It has to make decisions independently of the driver and protect the driver. When you have a vehicle capable of doing that, then you can be distracted or divert your attention to doing things other than driving, like digesting content.

Right now, other than focusing with all your senses on the act of driving--and along the way you’ve got the radio on listening to music--what else can you do in the car? Let’s be realistic. You can find parking lots, you can find the next gas station, but how often do you really use that? These are event-based, location-based services that maybe you use, but maybe not. If you’re talking about truly digesting content to the point that we do on a device, something radical has to change on the car.

Our first priority is to protect our drivers, our customers from danger. Once you have a vehicle that’s able to think independently, react independently, and manage independently, then you can start to realize the benefits of the apps.

Do you think American consumers want to give up control of their car to look at Facebook?

There are a lot of people who would love to. If I go to the West Coast and sit on the 405 at 6 p.m., I don’t want to be driving. I’d just rather let the car take care of everything. There’s technology like that today--Traffic Jam Assist—that reduces the stress level of the driver by taking over. I think that leaves people with a positive impression about the brand: You’ve lessened my stress.

Q: Do Kia consumers care as much as, say, Volvo consumers, about the latest features and infotainment?

I don’t think it really has to do with a certain brand. I think the issue we’re faced with is that there’s an industry-wide trend of being drawn toward technology. In the latest J.D. Power and Associates study for the automotive industry, technology [or lack of it] rose 11 points on why people avoid a certain brand. So technology’s quickly becoming a decision-maker on whether someone buys a vehicle. If a vehicle is perceived as having lax technology, that’s an avoider.

So the criteria have changed. The first thing people used to look at probably was design. Emotional things. The second thing was perceived quality. “Toyota is a top-quality product.” Those were the things that drew people into the brands. In the case of Ford, Ford’s more of a national brand. Everybody stood for something. But those borders are no longer there. Quality, value and design are all about equal. Who’s making ugly cars anymore? I can’t find one. They all look the same now. They used to say Toyota was top quality and Kia was low quality. Everything’s even now. They used to say Kia is a value vehicle. But all the prices are the same. So what’s the differentiator?

Obviously it’s going to become tougher because technology is in demand, and emphasis on quality and reliability is decreasing, so we have to make sure we are providing our customers a lot of technology features--innovation, features of comfort, features of convenience, because they’re demanding them.

The vehicle today has more lines of code from a software perspective than the F-22 Raptor, more lines of code than the Discovery shuttle, the Rover on Mars. People don’t realize what’s involved in bringing that to the road. It has far more technology, far more capability than a stealth fighter jet. It’s a very complex piece of equipment. That’s the space that we’re in. It’s very exciting.

And this is just the beginning. We’re talking about scale beyond the premium segment for features that used to be only for the premium segment. Active safety or convenience--you can find them on the $25,000 car now. Blind spot reduction, lane depature warning, adaptive cruise control.

Q: Are you able to find suppliers that produce the technology you need, or are there challenges there?

Tier 1s and 2s are doing a great job. There’s a lot of intelligence, good stuff out there and available. We have people knocking on our doors all the time to showcase the latest and greatest that they’re working on. I think the issue for the OEM is to figure out a way in which you can bring the technology to scale. Because we’re trying to manage a business with single-digit margins.

The price of vehicles has not kept pace with inflation. We’re finding ways to make them lighter, stronger better, meet fuel mileage, crash and safety requirements, five-star ratings. That costs money, and the price of the vehicle is essentially steady. We’ve got tier 1s coming to us, “I’ve got this technology for you.” What we struggle with is how do we tackle this and still maintain price competitiveness.

It’s not like ‘Build it and they will come.’ It doesn’t work that way. The issue is how do you make it to scale? We have to wait until the technology decay—until prices come down. Do you put it on your premium segment and wait for prices to come down? When do you put it on your mass production product so it’s available to more people? That’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with. 

About the Author

Laura Putre | Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

I work with IndustryWeek's contributors and report on leadership and the automotive industry as they relate to manufacturing. Got a story idea? Reach out to me at [email protected]


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