The Future of Cars is Gadget-based, not Mechanical

My friend Chuck Eglinton posted an interesting note on Facebook about how automakers like Toyota are concerned that younger people are more interested in buying the next smartphone than they are in buying cars, quoting Toyota President Jim Lentz “That’s a serious problem we need to address”.
The fact is, all the smart auto manufacturers get this and the ones that are marketing to the younger generation have already realized that cars are evolving into the ultimate personal consumer electronics gadget, one that just happens to have wheels. The next generation of auto buyers won’t care about engine specs, safety features or anything mechanical, they’ll make buying decisions based on the “gadget quotient” of their vehicle. Does it have a nav system? Does the stereo sync with their smart phone? Does the car have a rudimentary heads-up display? Does the car know when they’re walking up to it with proximity sensors? Is there a biometric security option?
Even the new safety features that we’re starting to see show up on luxury cars like BMW and Mercedes-Benz are gadget-based, like automatic braking, collision avoidance, and parking computers. Antilock brakes and airbags are great examples of what I’m talking about, tech features that have become standard on modern vehicles and are now more notable in their absence and unlikely to influence a purchase decision.
I know because I have a high GQ car myself, a Toyota Highlander Hybrid. It has all sorts of onboard computers, a smart nav system with a big touch screen, bluetooth handsfree that works (more or less) with my iPhone, 11-speaker audio system, and more. The Toyota hybrids are very geek-friendly, for sure.
And yet, for a 2008 model year car, I had to add a third-party iPod interface in the aftermarket (stupid, and my iPod Classic just sits in my glove compartment 24×7), the bluetooth doesn’t support AD2P stereo bluetooth so I can’t just push music out from my iPhone / smartphone to the stereo, and the phone sync doesn’t include the ability to push my address book into the car computer (which, with over 450 entries, would be a bit of a capacity test anyway).
Notice that I didn’t talk about the tires, the drivetrain, the engine, the hybrid system or the door locks. Really, the mechanical features of modern cars are totally commoditized and we as consumers can safely ignore those issues because they’re all solved problems. I don’t expect any major innovations in four-stage gasoline engines in the next decade, and while the hybrid systems might be disappointing from an environmental perspective, they are now getting pervasive on vehicles and aren’t particularly competitive anyway since they’re all tapping into what seems like a single design anyway.

This engaging KIA Motors ad sells tech and fashion, not a car..

If they don’t compete on gadget quotient, what DOES a modern carmaker compete on? The strength of the steel used for the car body (Lexus)? The ability of their car to brake to a stop faster than any other car (Audi), or the fact that it’s made in the United States of America (Ford)? Honestly, do modern — especially younger — car buyers really give a tinker’s cuss about any of those features, particularly if you break it down further and find out that some of those “foreign car companies” end up with a higher percentage of parts made and assembled in the USA than the so-called American car companies? [ref] So when Lentz says “we need to address” the problem of car makers turning away from the basic automotive building blocks, you can bet that his team at Toyota has long since recognized this trend. After all, that’s where the successful Scion line was born.
But tell me about your own experiences. Do you have a gadget-friendly car? Do you care? And what do you dream of having in the next car you purchase from a technological perspective?

10 comments on “The Future of Cars is Gadget-based, not Mechanical

  1. I think it’s all about usability. Auto manufacturers are incorporating some pretty cool tech into their vehicles, but their UI’s just plain suck. I test drove a BMW 5 series (I think it was an ’08 but not sure) and everything was controlled by a computer with a click-wheel. Even the climate control… it took 6 clicks and spins of the wheel to change the temperature, instead of just turning a dial and being done with it.
    And don’t get me started about car navigation systems… they’re just plain unusable. My ’08 Tundra’s built-in nav is so worthless I have my trusty old Garmin Nuvi stuck on the windshield right above it.
    I wish Apple would design an OEM touchscreen computer interface for the auto industry.

  2. The car is a commodity. Like you, I chose to add an aftermarket iPod player to our car (Grom Audio), we also added a computer hack to make our Gen-2 Prius an “Electric Vehicle.” We bought the “Viper Remote Starter” so that we can remotely start our car via an iPhone. The smartest auto manufacturers will offer these as factory options – and capture the young buyers.

  3. I live in Alaska … we look at whether the heater works and if it has 4 wheel drive .. the last car I bought is pretty gadget less but then I’m not the ‘next’ generation.

  4. There are lots of different ways to sell a vehicle. For a great many folks, it’s the overall design of a vehicle that sells it. How does it make you feel when you don it? What does it say about you as a person?
    Beautiful sells, but as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder …
    * On the tech side, there’s a wide range of iPod interface designs (and Bluetooth integration). What does it take for a manufacturer to create a well-designed set of screens (and full BT integration) vs something that is a poke in the eye?
    (’08 circa vehicles were just starting to catch onto the revolution in personal communications/entertainment tech. Fast forward a few years and there’s a plethora of choices out there, but they all come at a price.)
    * Great seats sell cars. Top-shelf lumbar support and multi-level heating/ventilation are hugely important for folks with back woes.
    * Fuel efficiency is a huge issue. Hybrids represent a tiny percentage of the overall world vehicle population. There are plenty of drive train innovations yet to come.
    But when it all gets down to it …
    Can you afford all the features you desire?

  5. It’s like the hardware vs software question. Personally I would be more attracted to a car that had more tech and safety features. Would you say that a features/gadget based society is where we’re heading towards?

  6. Cars have a much longer life cycle than gadgets. Built-in gadgets are also overpriced. $1500 for a built-in navigation versus $180 for a superior aftermarket tool?
    The big trend right now are internet radios running Pandora and many other enhanced functionality. XM has become part of history.
    I like to have control over these elements and will most probably opt for an aftermarket product. Car makers make it difficult to replace their units but there are kits that allow for that.
    I just threw a Bluetooth radio in my 02 Beetle and got it up to 2011 standards. That cost me $200 including a microphone and a professional installation.
    The last thing I’d want is too loose my flexibility over my mobile devices because of the car I own (i.e. tied to IOS).
    For anything not related to the radio/navigation the situation is a little different. If you take a look at an A8, S500 or 750i you know what is going to be in your car in 5-7 years from now.
    Systems keeping the distance to car ahead of you is just one novelty that is heading our way. These elements of your car won’t become obsolete that quickly.
    In the wake of manufacturers offering so many different approaches to cutting fuel consumption we might also see big changes in engine technology. The new Ford Explorer is offered with a 4-cylinder engine. That would have been unthinkable 5 years ago.
    Audi is experimenting with a rotary/hybrid engine (which raises eyebrows at Volkswagen). We will see Diesel hybrids.
    All of these engines wouldn’t be feasible with very advanced technology that might not be called a gadget but it just as innovative and fascinating to people that understand cars.
    To me the word gadget is tied into short life cycles. As for cars I am more interested in technology that doesn’t become outdated by something else 6 months from now.
    Last but not least: A friend of mine is spending $1500 to convert his Honda Element to NCG. Don’t overlook the options to get your older set of wheels up to par in todays car-coolness discussion.

  7. I’ve been an avid car enthusiast for years, and I also love technology. I agree that tighter technological integration is definitely a big hook for young prospective buyers, but I think that the future is not in proprietary systems, other than dedicated nav. As another commenter noted, the UI’s of many of the nav systems from the bigger companies are simply atrocious. I think that the car makers should stick with what they know and either outsource their tech to companies that are more familiar with it or, I think even more importantly, simply work on seamless integration with the tech that people already have. The time is not very far away when you’ll be able to order your vehicle with a simple dock for your Ipad that will integrate everything. I think that the tech integration is definitely important, and I think that using the tech people already have is the key.

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