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BMW: AI is more than Autonomous Driving

Mon, 01/14/2019

BMW recognizes how AI can open exciting new avenues in the way they approach their customers, dealers, employees and products. They also know to expect everything from excitement to unfamiliarity to fear as the company incorporates AI into everyday work.

Craig Westbrook, Vice President, BMW North America, U.S Importer of BMW Luxury/ Performance Vehicles

When I think about AI, I immediately go to autonomous driving and other automotive applications. After all, I'm a car guy. But I also realize the implications are much broader and touch every part of our business, from manufacturing to communications to brand positioning.

AI illustrates perfectly why we must change our thought processes and acceptance levels at lightning speed. Here's a parallel: Not that long ago, I warned my daughters about this thing called the Internet. I said don't go on it, but if you do, don't tell anybody who you are. If you do that, don't ever ask them to meet you somewhere. And if you do that, do not -- under any circumstances -- get in their car. Guess what? Now we all do these things every day and call it Uber.

This just shows how quickly the consumer journey is evolving, both in terms of the experience and how people perceive brands. At BMW, we know AI can open exciting new avenues in the way we approach our end user customers, our dealers, our employees and our products. We also know to expect everything from excitement to unfamiliarity to fear as we incorporate AI into our everyday work.

Building the consumer purchase experience

Convenience and trust are key to consumers. As an example, in the UK, we sell cars online and provide support via chat lines. It's very successful, in part because we have real people conversing with consumers. Potential buyers feel they're talking to someone who cares about their wants and needs and they can end the conversation whenever they want. They don't feel stuck on the line with someone who just wants to sell them a car.

There are pros and cautions to moving a process like this to AI. It can certainly give us more intelligence and allow us to quasi-interact online with consumers who want to be anonymous and don't want a superpersonal experience. Our functionality, for instance, can prequalify buyers and recommend cars based on their answers to lifestyle questions. AI can make these interactions more interesting and go further even than the telephone in some cases. But authentic, interpersonal communication via AI is still a future move for BMW. Until the technology reaches a very high level of sophistication, we are placing more value on functional applications.

Adding new value to the broad consumer journey

A few years ago, I would never have imagined I would have an app to show me where my electric car is, where I can charge it and where I can park it. Now it's an integral part of what we offer, which dovetails with automotive engineering design: what cars look like, what they do by themselves, how fast they do it, etc.

There's no question we've thought about how the product will fare, but what about the consumer using that product? Who are they? What do they expect from their cars and from us? That's where I see AI making a big impact, enabling us to leverage existing data to add more value to the consumer journey.

Handling privacy issues properly

BMW, like all companies, is amassing a tremendous amount of data on consumers. The challenge lies in how to leverage data with AI tools to create better consumer experiences without compromising privacy.

We believe there will be a gradual reach into the consumer zone for intelligence and insights. Each time, we'll go a bit deeper until we find the point where data collection should stop and consumer privacy start. We must also ask, when consumers “surrender” their data, do they really know what they willingly give up? Educating consumers on what happens to their data makes it easier for us to collect what we need without crossing the line, an important aspect of brand credibility and trust.

At BMW, we believe there are certain places where people and machines don't go together -- when it comes to making an actual sale, for example, we find that in-person interactions with consumers are what work best. But once we tailor the AI experience to willing consumers, we can build mutually beneficial relationships that consumers genuinely value.

How AI affects dealers and employees

I mentioned fear as one of the reactions companies might expect from their constituents when they introduce AI into their processes.

People across industries, not just automotive, have embedded attitudes and resist change, especially if it threatens the way they've always done things. As leaders, we can diffuse these fears by educating our teams about AI, what it does and why it's good. I don't need our dealers to know how AI technology is built, they just need to understand how we apply it to benefit our customers. I see this as a missing piece that good communication can help solve.

I also think AI can help us close a workforce gap. In the automotive industry, we have a one-size-fits-all approach to training. That needs to change. I'd like to see AI help us understand, based on events and data, what employees' strengths and weaknesses are. That way, if one guy wants to be a master technician and another wants to change tires, we're not judging them on the same criteria, but on each person's specific goals and contributions.

These applications, of course, could help us retain good people, which is where many employers need to focus. Industry -- wide, turnover among automotive sales people in the U.S. is around 50%! And we know it's also high for technicians, who represent our greatest training investment. AI could help us identify trends so we know what to leverage to get employees to stay.

What's next for AI at BMW

Obviously, we're full speed ahead with AI in product innovation. In other parts of our business, we're at varying points along the spectrum, exploring possibilities that make sense for us and our consumers. From a communications standpoint, I see our biggest near-term opportunities in these areas:

1 Consumer experience improvements

AI is broadly democratic in its first application, but by the time it gets down to the individual consumer level, things get interesting. We think AI can help us dig deeper into existing data on existing platforms to tailor our engagement with consumers in creative, compelling ways.

2 Connecting products to consumer expectations

It's mind-boggling to think how many ways we can use AI to make our products and services better for customers. The trick is to do it not just for technology's sake, but in response to what consumers tell us they need and want.

3 Privacy protection

At BMW, we think privacy is more than securing data. It's also ensuring consumers know what data they're giving us, why and what the possible implications are. Clear communication and education ensure we never cross the line and jeopardize consumer trust.

4 Dealer education

The automotive industry is more than 100 years old and some traditions die hard. Our dealers must adapt to new AI driven marketing, advertising, sales channels, offer customization and other processes. Everyone's at a different place in understanding AI, so it's up to us to educate them and show them real world successes.

5 Employee training

My training director has reminded me that investment in our workforce must yield higher retention. We think AI applications can help us get in front of this issue to optimize our training dollars and reduce employee turnover.

Consumers today expect more from brands and don't necessarily care how you develop or deliver it. At BMW, we don't want to be known as a car maker or as AI experts. We want consumers to trust us as a premium provider of mobility services. AI is part of the recipe that can help us get there and delight every single consumer throughout the BMW journey.


craig westbrook bmw
During his 22 years with the company, he has worked on three continents, held positions in total vehicle quality and research and development, and was Vice President of Aftersales.

Prior to his current role as Regional Vice President, Craig was Vice President of Customer Experience and Chief Customer Officer, where he was responsible for BMW's dealer network development and training, the in dealership customer experience and the customer experience with BMW service departments. He sees intriguing opportunities to use AI to better understand, educate and engage his three ‘audiences’, car buyers, dealers and employees.

 

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