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Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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Global CIO: Toyota's Friend Network Will Test Customer Ties

It's working with 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, 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's Chatter collaboration platform.

Here's Toyota's description of the platform:

Toyota Friend will be a private social network that connects Toyota customers with their cars, their dealership, and with Toyota. Toyota Friend will provide a variety of product and service information as well as essential maintenance tips, creating a rich car ownership experience. For example, if an EV or PHV is running low on battery power, Toyota Friend would notify the driver to re-charge in the form of a “tweet”-like alert. In addition, while Toyota Friend will be a private social network, customers can choose to extend their communication to family, friends, and others through public social networks such as Twitter and Facebook."

I find the use cases underwhelming. I felt the same way with Toyota's recently inked deal with Microsoft, in which Toyota will build apps on the Microsoft Azure cloud computing platform, to be delivered via telematics to Toyota vehicles. As an example of what it might offer, Toyota cited a smartphone app that would let a driver remotely turn on the heat or air conditioning, or maybe someday control the temperature and lights at home via an app in the car.

What Toyota has done with its Microsoft and Salesforce deals, however, is build platforms for creative people to build upon. The huge question is how open those platforms will be for people to create.

Will only a few pre-approved partners be able to write apps for the Azure platform, or will it be more like the Apple App Store, where anyone can write but Apple decides what gets offered? How much control will Toyota exert over its Friend network? Certainly, vehicle safety worries will loom large when it comes to people writing apps or suggesting repairs and alterations to a vehicle. If Toyota had an open, wiki-like owner's manual, what if someone suggests a tweak to an electric car that could actually fry the batteries--or disable the brakes? Consumers also may worry about sharing personal data, like health information, with a carmaker.

That leads to the very real question of how much of a relationship you really want with your car or carmaker. Fortune columnist Stanley Bing recently wrote something of a Dear John letter to Toyota, suggesting his purchase of a Rav 4 was a brief and pleasurable encounter, not the start of a long-term commitment that Toyota envisions:

I just don't have time for the kind of intense connection that it's clear you have in mind. I have on my desk as I write this a stack of e-mail printouts half an inch high, and that's from less than six weeks! It's too much!

Every company will have to figure out how their relationships with customers are changed by mobile and social apps -- some will change hardly at all, some will change profoundly. Carmakers are proving they're going to be one of the industries that will test the new boundaries of those relationships.

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