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5/24/2011
09:56 AM
Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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Global CIO: Toyota's Friend Network Will Test Customer Ties

It's working with Salesforce.com to build a social network for Toyota owners, testing the boundaries of how much of a relationship you really want with a carmaker.

Do you so love your Toyota Prius that you'll join a social network devoted to communing with fellow Pius, I mean Prius, owners? Toyota said yesterday it plans to build just such a social network, in partnership with Salesforce.com, focusing initially on owners of its upcoming electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in Japan.

Do you so trust Ford that you'll let your F-150 pickup monitor your blood sugar, and even transmit that data wirelessly to your loved ones, so they'll know if you're at risk of diabetic shock? Ford's testing the idea now.

Do you feel such a bond with your Beemer that you're drawn to smartphone applications from BMW, even for info like public transportation options that isn't tied directly to your car? BMW has a $100 million venture fund to back such apps.

What you're seeing with all these moves is carmakers betting that mobile and social technologies will change people's relationship with their cars. The mobile Internet, in particular, will change how people get information about their cars, how they interact with them, and what services a vehicle can provide. When people have a problem with their cars, they're increasingly going to reach for their smartphone before the owner's manual in the glove box. And often they'll turn to some social site--seeking the advice of other owners--over or alongside the manufacturer's information.

What's unknown is just how much of a relationship people really want with their vehicles and the company that sold it.

Take Ford's healthcare-related app. My first reaction was that it just seems weird -- a car monitoring my health data? Why wouldn't I do that on an app independent from my car? Ford also is testing seats that track your heartbeat, to monitor stress and perhaps play calmer music if it's elevated. That feature, too, seems odd to me -- yet here's a reader comment from my recent column on Toyota's partnership with Microsoft, to bring new cloud-based apps into Toyota vehicles: "It would be a cool feature if the car seat had a scale in it that could weigh the driver and track weight against weight loss goals."

Carmakers will have to be bold if they're going to build these broader relationships via mobile and social apps. Will they have a "social" owner's manual, where people can share their experiences on things that have and haven't worked for them? It would be like the Wikipedia approach to providing depth and clarity to the owner's manual. I could've used such a venue recently as I was struggling to recharge the dead battery on my car. When the impenetrable owner's manual left me baffled, I went online and searched for comments on various auto sites. (Then I called AAA.)

Toyota doesn't paint a lot of bold use cases for its just announced social network, which it will build on Salesforce.com's Chatter collaboration platform.

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