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February 8, 2013

News & Features

Technology push brings challenges for automakers

New York Times News Service

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A Ford Fusion SYNC system connects the car stereo and navigation system to a user's mobile device. (Julie Jacobsen / The Associated Press )

Automakers are racing to ramp up their digital offerings, linking in-dash systems to smartphones and services such as traffic monitors faster than you can say Pandora.

Contrary to what some overwhelmed shoppers may think, the car companies are not doing this because they have run dry of new ideas for luxury features and styling embellishments. Rather, it's a response to demand: According to a recent study by IBM, buyers will increasingly select their new cars based on the digital gadgetry they contain.
In the next eight years, shoppers will focus more on options like live traffic reports and the personalization of connected services rather than brand names and reliability, according to the report, titled "Transforming Retail."

While fuel economy is expected to remain paramount for many buyers, the emphasis on connected services is creating a digital debate among automakers about how to deliver these services.

Should such in-car systems take an open, flexible approach to connecting with software and services, or should these services be tightly controlled and restricted by the automakers? It's shaping up as a battle similar to that between Google and Apple in smartphone operating systems.

The automakers' opinions are about evenly divided.

"About 50 percent of U.S. auto executives expect that things will become mostly open," says Kalman Gyimesi, author of the six-month IBM project.

Gyimesi says he believes the auto industry is at a tipping point in the technology tug of war, which could favor the open approach taken by companies like Ford. It lets outside companies more quickly create new apps and services that can then be used via smartphones, he says.

On the other side are automakers such as Mercedes-Benz that prefer to differentiate their systems and maintain customer loyalty by keeping tighter control over what connects to the car.

There's also the safety issue.

"You don't want Angry Birds to set off an air bag," says Jake Sigal, chief executive of Livio Radio. Livio creates the software that connects cars including the Chevrolet Spark to cellphones and services such as Internet music channels.

Some car companies take the position that by doing the development themselves, they can focus on reliability and safety, Sigal says. But the disadvantage to that approach is that services may not appear in some cars until long after their popularity has waned.
Underpinning these issues is an even more fundamental concern from the early days of personal computing: lack of compatibility.

In general, software and services across different vehicles are not consistent and often require drivers to download multiple apps, particularly in tightly controlled systems. It also means software developers may need to create separate versions for different automakers and car models.

Compatibility also is important to drivers. According to the IBM study, nearly 25 percent of buyers consider digital connectivity across models important when it comes to buying multiple vehicles. In other words, traffic reports and personalized streaming-music channels should look and work the same in all cars.

In the open versus controlled technology debate, the former usually wins, according to analysts.

"The open approach tends to drive an industry," Gyimesi says.


See for yourself:
Download the "Transforming Retail" study.

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