Automotive UX, voice assistants, trends

Digital companion or minimalist assistant - how much is too much for German drivers?

Just imagine: You've had a long day at work, it's cold and already dark. Tired, you sit down in your car, switch it on and immediately a pleasant voice rings out: "Hello! How are you today? The temperature is -3°, shall I make you some hot chocolate?". Before you can answer, you can already hear the water in your car's integrated fully automatic drinks dispenser being heated up as a precaution. The voice sounds again: "By the way, it's your mother's birthday today, would you like to call her?".

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A horror or pure luxury?

Do you find this idea creepy or pleasant? This is where opinions differ. How should the car interact with us? Should it just take us from A to B in comfort or be a technical substitute for a pet? An extension of the smartphone or reduced to minimalist functions?

Our thesis: Depending on which country you come from, you would probably answer this question differently. After all, what we expect from our (intelligent) car, how we use it, what function it should fulfill and what we want it to represent to the outside world depends on the country and culture. As the latest technology in the e-car market is currently coming mainly from China, let's take a look at this in comparison to Germany.

What is the status quo?

The latest eAuto models are all equipped with a screen console that can be operated by touch. To divert attention from the console while driving, the systems are supported by voice assistants; functions such as switching on the seat heating can be activated by voice. In addition, there is a variety of gadgets (usually from Chinese manufacturers): from guitar strings stretched across the side of the door to play music while driving, karaoke function, massage seats or an integrated mini-fridge, there are no limits.

Status symbols and mobility: the importance of the car in Germany and China

Can you eat in your car? How often do you go to the car wash? Does your car have a name? The car as a status symbol is losing importance, as you can read everywhere (source). But we must not forget: This significance may be dwindling, but it is far from over.

Despite all mobility trends and alternatives, such as car sharing, the density of cars in Germany is higher than ever before (source) and the private car is the undisputed number one means of transportation. The car stands for freedom and a certain status. Even if brand loyalty is declining, especially with e-cars (source), status and vehicle brand are still firmly linked in social thinking. The car you drive shows who you are. VW Polo? Daredevil novice driver. Volvo? Family car. Although these attributions are becoming less and less common, a car in Germany is still a long way from being just a car.

A Never Ending Love Story? Germans and their cars

Germans still love their cars: According to a recent study by DAT, the emotional attachment to their own car is very high at 71% among used car customers and 77% among new car customers. The remaining percent consider their relationship with their car to be rather unemotional, like a vacuum cleaner, for example (source). Surveys repeatedly show that Germans give their cars names and thus humanize the vehicle. It is also not particularly uncommon to talk to your own car, which shows how deep this personal relationship with the car can go (source). Incidentally, the most popular nicknames for cars are "Dicker", "mein Kleiner", "mein Lieber" or "Bärchen" (source)

If (some) Germans talk to their cars anyway, then it would be wonderful if the car answered straight away, wouldn't it? It's only when the voice is female that the nickname "Dicker" doesn't roll off the tongue so easily.

How important is the car in China?

Do the Chinese also give their cars nicknames? At least foreign brands get funny nicknames like "Don't touch me" (BMW) or "A gangster in a suit," (Audi RS series) (source). For a long time, German brands in China were regarded as upper-class models, but with the rise of e-cars, they are being replaced by Chinese brands (source), which are experiencing a rapid rise as new status symbols (source). The pwc study "Automotive industry and mobility in China" shows: "The car is a symbol of a better life" (source p. 33). In crowded, oversized and noisy cities, it is a luxury to be able to escape into the private space of your own car instead of having to make do with overcrowded public transport (source 43).

The car is a luxury. However, the motivation for displaying this luxury is different from that in the western world: it is not about individualism. People don't want to stand out, they just want to show where they stand in the social structure.

Broken down, you could say: in the western world, driving a certain car sends a message: "Look at me, I'm driving a Porsche, I'm different from you!". In China, you don't send a message, you just show: I belong to the upper class (source p.33).

Whether Germany or China: emotions play a major but different role

But even if the message to the outside world is more sober, emotions are an important topic for the younger audience in modern China, which should also be reflected in products. Cars are a statement, they should be personal without being directed against the masses (source p. 33).

In Germany, it is noticeable that emotions in relation to the car are mostly positive, especially when it comes to driving pleasure. Various studies show that Germans still really enjoy driving.


Is my car a human being? The NOMI case

We can see that both the German and Chinese markets want to combine emotions and cars. We remember the study on the emotional attachment of Germans and their cars: only 21-29% stated that they have a rather unemotional attachment to their car. How will this change if you can no longer avoid the "personality" of the car because it is part of the car? Will the bond be forced upon us? Shouldn't Germans be thrilled if the car also shows emotions because of their emotional attachment to the car?

The Chinese brand NIO's e-cars feature personality in the form of a talking artificial intelligence called "NOMI Mate", incidentally the world's first AI to be permanently integrated into mass-produced cars (source). NOMI is specifically advertised as a "lovable and helpful robot for the emotional bond between driver and vehicle" and is said to function as the "world's first device for building trust between passengers and AI". What's special about it: NOMI has a face and responds to speech with digital gestures, turns to the person who is speaking and helps with all kinds of practical things, such as adjusting the temperature by voice or taking a photo. And much more: NOMI learns routines and patterns over time, can plan events or suggest routes (source). Our example from the intro could therefore be an almost real scenario with NOMI. NOMI is therefore a fully human robot.



NOMI in China: An absolute success

The concept was a complete success on the Chinese market. NOMI is even dressed up to make it even more human. The connection of emotions to the car has reached a new dimension at pet level. In foreign test formats (Chinese or American) NOMI is acclaimed, the word "cute" is mentioned very often, many write that they "love NOMI".

NOMI in Germany: Well.

In German test formats, NOMI is described as a "nice gimmick" at best, while the voice and interaction are considered annoying. The comments range from "Absolute garbage that you don't need" to "Hopefully you can switch it off?" and "Definitely a reason for me not to buy the car!". Does that mean we just want a minimalist system that gets us from A to B? Is it already too much if the voice coming out of the car has its own name?

The latest NIO model ET5, which has also been available in Germany since June 2023, has been retrofitted with a more discreet "NOMI Halo" variant (source), which only consists of a light blue ring (source), the face and the associated visual humanity have been omitted. Now the cute robot NOMI is visually no more than our well-known friends SIRI and Alexa, only with the ability to learn. A coincidence or a reaction to the European market?  Was NOMI Mate too playful? NOMI was obviously very well received in China, so why was the concept changed?

Difference Germany vs. China?

Let's now move on to our theses on why digital avatars/pets/compagnons don't seem to be nearly as popular in Germany as they are in China.

Thesis 1: Differences in how assistants and employees are treated as a matter of course

In the Chinese upper class and well-off middle class, it is much more common than in Germany (source) to have your own employees. They are more accustomed to delegating tasks and relying on others, whether human or AI. Germans are not as accustomed to delegating tasks to people or even AIs in their private lives. In Germany, for example, only one in 10 households employs a domestic helper (source). Compared to other countries, German companies are also not as strictly hierarchically structured, and delegation is associated with responsibility rather than individual tasks (source). This could also be a factor as to why Germans first have to get used to systems that proactively take on tasks and make them easier.

Thesis 2: German fear and entertainment vs. distraction potential

Some swear by Apple, some swear by Android. Some want more design and technology, some want more gadgets and buttons. The average German is simply not yet used to the level of technology that has been commonplace in China for decades. We suffer from German-Angst, the deep-rooted need for increased security, which is expressed through hesitation and fear of the future (source). That's why it takes us longer and longer for technologies to become established; the eternal "But what if...?" keeps circling around in German heads. What if the technology goes on strike?

There is also an aspect that affects usage: driving pleasure is very important to Germans. Driving itself is relaxation for many, some use car journeys to think or to "really switch off". It is much more than simply getting from A to B, it is wellness. What could be more distracting than a voice off-screen or a flashing light on the control screen?

In China, on the other hand, the car has to fulfill a different role because its use is different: author Vera Hermes writes that Chinese cars are equipped with more information and entertainment systems because drivers spend much more time in traffic jams. The car is an extension of the living space, the living room on wheels. So it is only natural that you also have entertainment options in your living room on the move.

Thesis 3: UX preferences of Western and Asian users: It couldn't be more different

Even though Germans have a lot of feelings for their cars, they tend to be sober and rational when it comes to UX design. This also applies to the software for control consoles. As a western brand, Tesla has a very minimalist system here. Clear edges and shapes, soft tones, everything should feel a bit like wellness. Just not too much. No flashing lights or silly little figures that make shrill noises. Less is noble and less is more.

In China, on the other hand, minimalism in technology is not only considered boring, but also less valuable. The motto is: The more I see, the more I get. More is more (source). This credo regularly results in a complete sensory overload for Western tourists: the escalator plays a jingle, the toilet has 20 different buttons and the e-car talks to me and even has a face?! For the Chinese population, it has to be loud and colorful, otherwise the information is lost in the noise of the urban jungle (source).

Thesis 4: A remedy for loneliness among young Chinese people

Our UX colleagues from China have provided an exciting insight: Chinese customers (often young men) have few opportunities to have socially acceptable conversations about emotions and emotional topics. In one of our recent studies, this target group in particular was very happy to have an emotional assistant. This could have to do with the strong isolation of young men in China, who are demographically less likely to find a partner than is the case in other countries (source).


What do we Germans want now?

Let's summarize: The Chinese want a lot. Playful technology. The mobile home theater. A voice and a face. An assistant. A dancing figurine on the display. Karaoke function in the car. Entertainment paired with information.
Germans want minimalism and a clear overview on the control
panels. Information is enough. Maybe a little bit of entertainment. Is it really that simple?

What some call minimalist, others call spartan. German test reports sometimes criticize and sometimes praise the lack of control elements; it seems to be a matter of taste, similar to the eternal debate between manual or automatic gearshift and which is better. However, one thing seems clear: Germans do not want any forced emotionalization, e.g. in the form of an avatar.  The car is loved enough without a forced personality. It's too silly, too childish.



It is said that "the car is the German's favorite child". What this child is supposed to be able to do is still questionable. Be childish? No. Speak? Maybe in two years. Carry out commands? Yes, maybe basic functions. After all, it should remain a child and not become a stubborn teenager with its own opinion. Extras yes, new technology gladly, but please as sober as possible.

We love our cars, but more as a vehicle of possibilities, not as something intrinsically worth loving. Germans find it difficult to give up autonomy and rely on technology. After all, the focus is still on driving and there should be no distraction from that. The driving home theater may come later.


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Contact person

Wolfgang Waxenberger

Wolfgang started his career as a UX professional in 2004 after completing his MA in Political Science and Sociology. He led SirValUse Consulting and GfK's UX department for 10 years before founding uintent. Wolfgang's focus is on automotive and healthcare research.

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