Studies show consumers shop for cars and trucks that match their style, their favorite color, and even the best fuel economy. Increasingly, though, experts say vehicle-buying decisions hinge on how well consumers’ smartphones connect to a car or trucks’ infotainment system.
“Towing capability is a unique feature for a certain segment. Cargo volume is another,” said Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst and manager of infotainment at IHS Automotive. “But increasingly it doesn’t matter what car, nor the price, as long as the technology in the car works with the consumers’ mobile technology.”
A couple of years ago, Ford Motor Co., BMW and Mercedes-Benz were ahead of other automakers in offering in-vehicle infotainment systems, he said. But at the North American International Auto Show in January — and a week earlier at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas — the rest of the automakers closed the gap and showcased cars and trucks that connected to smartphones through Bluetooth technology.
At CES, both Ford and General Motors took the smartphone experience one step further by opening their latest vehicles to global developers working on apps for Android and iPhone technology.
GM spokesman Scott Fosgard called it GM’s new flexible app framework.
“This will do two things: lead to the creation of a new category of apps that don’t exist yet,” Fosgard said. “Let’s call them car apps, designed uniquely for the car and not a tablet or smartphone. … Two, this allows you to add the apps you want and add more the longer you own the vehicle. You aren’t stuck with the two to three apps the car company chose for you.”
But analyst Thilo Koslowsky, vice president and automotive practice leader for Gartner Group, said he thinks it will be model year 2017 — which is available in three years — before the majority of consumers will make the availability of infotainment systems a reason to buy competing vehicles.
But for premium brands such as Cadillac, Audi and Mercedes, “we’re there now,” he said.
Koslowsky calls it lifestyle convergence. Cars are becoming the ultimate mobile device. But he won’t declare any automaker the leader. What he does like is the Cadillac Cue Technology, a system designed for autos, not smartphones. It features a dashboard display that allows the driver to press icons to activate audio, navigation, phone, climate control and more. He also likes Audi’s in-vehicle approach that features Google maps.
The key to future success is which automakers take the ability that consumers now have on smartphones and convert it to the most meaningful in-vehicle experience, he said.
“Now everyone is fishing for the next big thing and trying to cram as many apps as possible into a car,” Koslowsky said.
Certainly, app developers have a much bigger screen on which to build their products in a car, he said. Cars also have multiple screens. They have sensors built-in. He sees a future where the car can sense the driver’s mood and play music to, say, relieve stress.
Before the end of this decade, Koslowsky predicts, there will be self-driving cars on the road, a driverless taxi system of sorts. That, he said, could change the car-buying paradigm dramatically, perhaps more so than the debate over the connected car today.
“If a car drives itself, how do automakers differentiate the driving experience, a big factor in buying decisions today?” he said. “If a car picks me up and drops me off, why do I need to even buy a car? Cars just become another public transportation vehicle for getting someone from point A to point B.”
Mike Brennan is senior technology writer at MiBiz. His day job is editor and publisher of MITechNews.com