Automakers Trail in the Great Gizmo Race
Automakers struggle to keep up with customers' demand for high-tech accessories, connectivity and entertainment.
ASP Technology's Anti-Sleep Pilot is a dash-mounted disc, the size of a cookie, and will beep intermittently during the course of a drive, based on the driver's health and fatigue characteristics. If the driver reacts too slowly to the alert, the beep changes to an alarm.
Evan Kuperman, the dealership's assistant general manager, took a deep breath. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
"Customers want everything to work with everything," Kuperman says of the proliferation of personal electronics. "How're you ever going to make that happen?"
Indeed, how to make that happen is a key challenge for the U.S. auto industry today. Smart phones, iPads, antenna-equipped laptops, MP3 players and the wide world of Internet connectivity have become so core to American society that automakers are struggling to keep up with the challenge.
And they are not entirely succeeding.
The electronics and telecom industries are advancing at a 21st-century pace of product development. Meanwhile, automakers plod along on three- and four-year model cycles. That discrepancy means that automaker-installed features are becoming outmoded well before a consumer is done with a vehicle.
To compound automakers' challenge, portable store-bought devices are becoming more popular.
Vehicle engineers work on traffic-alert technologies and introduce them into onboard navigation systems, which can add $2,000 to a car's sticker price. But an ordinary smart phone already can zoom in on local traffic conditions via the Internet at no extra charge. Smart phone navigation can be downloaded for around $50.
Even car radios, around since the days of Al Jolson, could soon be supplanted by outside technologies.
Consumers want connectivity
J.D. Power and Associates' 2011 U.S. Automotive Emerging Technologies Study, released late last month, finds that 86 percent of smart phone owners now use their devices in their vehicles. Just one year ago, half of the consumers in Power's survey said they wanted their vehicle to have Internet connectivity. This year, two thirds of consumers say they want it.
But typical of the broad industry trend, drivers wonder why they should pay a premium for in-car features that no longer cost very much outside the car. Power's 2011 survey found that 71 percent of consumers want navigation technology in their vehicles. But once they learned the price tag for it, only 47 percent of them were still interested.
Luxury vehicle owners think differently about this than lower-end buyers and younger consumers," says Mike VanNieuwkuyk, Power's executive director of global vehicle research. "But what's happening is that those nonluxury consumers are going to go out and find their own less expensive solutions. And it's going to influence what the industry does."
Those alternative solutions are also typically more up-to-date, adds, Phil Magney, vice president of automotive research at the industry forecasting firm IHS iSuppli.
"Some of the key technologies currently marketed by the OEMs have peaked," he warns. Among them: dedicated navigation systems, CD players, anything involving complicated switching and onscreen menus, onboard hard-disc drives and even standard AM/FM radio.
"It makes no sense whatsoever to be designing the next-gen navigation system and expecting to sell it for $2,500," Magney says. "Those days are going away rapidly."
Another big dead end for automakers: built-in entertainment devices.
"Why would you spend $2,000 for a rear-seat entertainment system when you can buy four iPads for $500 each?" asks the tech-savvy manager Kuperman. "And the kids can carry the pads into the restaurant with them when you stop."
Replacing built-in electronics are devices purchased outside traditional auto industry circles, Magney adds, such as smart phones and aftermarket products.
Automakers fight for turf
This may be a heretical question to ask: Does it make sense for automakers to compete?
If the electronics industry is giving consumers inexpensive new gadgets and tools faster than the auto industry can, why don't automakers simply step aside and spend their r&d money elsewhere--say, on chassis enhancements?
Trisha Jung takes exception to that notion. Jung, formerly Nissan North America's chief marketing manager for the electric Nissan Leaf, has been tasked to start a Nissan U.S. group called Vehicle Connected Services. With a staff in Nashville and Silicon Valley, Jung will help the automaker position itself in the swirling arena of Internet connectivity.
"The industry is moving into a new opportunity," Jung says. "The OEMs are not going to become software developers. But the challenge is: How do we integrate the driving experience with what consumers are doing and want to do?"
It's hardly a new challenge. Remember the car phone? In the 1980s, communication advances made it feasible to install telephones in vehicles, with dialing pads built into the console. By 1999, Mercedes-Benz USA could proudly announce that it would have car phones available on all models in 2000 through a partnership with Motorola.
But even then, the telecommunications industry was moving faster than automakers. By 2000, the number of cell phones in the United States had increased to 180 million, up from just 45 million five years earlier. Today, there is a cell phone in use for nearly every man, woman and child in America. That is hardly a scenario that warrants investing to design a phone dialer in a car's console.
Attack of the apps
Many functions that automaker telematics services seek to provide are available on cell phones or portable tablets. Cell phone features provide free navigation, roll up a car's windows or sound its security alarm, unrelated to the vehicle's manufacturer. Phone apps can provide reminders for scheduled car maintenance or alert a driver when a friend might be inside the Starbucks at the next intersection.
Four years ago, Nissan Motor Co. announced it was hiring 1,000 additional engineers in Japan to beef up new technologies. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn vowed that Nissan would unveil a stream of 15 new vehicle technologies a year starting in 2009. To showcase the effort, the company showed journalists some of the advanced ideas under commercial development.
One was a drowsiness-detection system that alerted drivers who might be falling asleep at the wheel. A complex, basketball-shaped robot mounted in the car's dashboard to perform multiple functions would focus sensors on the driver's eyes. When the eyelids drooped, the system would take steps to pep up the driver, like bringing in fresh air.
Fast forward to 2011: No such feature is available on a Nissan vehicle. But a Danish electronics company, ASP Technology Ltd., this year began selling its own drowsy-driver detector called the Anti-Sleep Pilot, for a mere $179. The dash-mounted disc — the size of a cookie — will beep intermittently during the course of a drive, based on the driver's health and fatigue characteristics. If the driver reacts too slowly to the alert, the beep changes to an alarm.
If $179 is too pricey, ASP also offers an iPhone app of the Anti-Sleep Pilot for $19.95.
Yet automakers press ahead.
"We acknowledge that connectivity is everywhere now," says Alan Hall, spokesman for Ford Motor Co.'s technologies. "People expect to be able to get a baseball score or next week's weather or send an e-mail birthday card no matter where they are. And there's no avoiding that.
"But in this trend, we see an opportunity to provide a solution for a safer driving environment," he says. "We want to make it possible for customers to keep their hands on the steering wheel."
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With all of the warnings about distracted drivers recently a local patrolman rear ended a car because he was looking over at his computer screen. He said he didn''t realize the car in front was slowing down. Like computers if you hit the wrong button you have to reprogram everything. Some safety features are lost in the technology race. Fro example in 1969 Ford had a horn built into the steering wheel rim. Pressure blew it. The first thing you do in an emergency is tense up, hence HONK. Why don't they put automatic headlight dimmers as standard. The 1956 Olds. had them.
Even the ads show cars being used recklessly. Although they say "professional driver on closed course" The only way you are going to "drift" is intentionally (we called is a power slide) or if you are on snow. They don't show them hitting ice and sliding. The only advantage having a built in nav. system is that you don't have to disconnect it and put it in the trunk to keep it from being stolen. I used to enjoy driving and actually went out for a drive. I haven't found any car today that I would describe as a joy to drive.
BUT don't make it look like a twee little girls car, a moderate sized hatchback would be good.If the price was right and it worked well, it could corner the market,and be sold in huge numbers,creating employment and profits in these frugal times.
Replace the whole center consol with an Ipad. Everything from music to the air conditioning could be controlled with a digital interface instead of analog controls.