In latest car models, it’s not just what’s under the hood that counts


At the Washington Auto Show 2013,the Audi Connect system is seen here on a model. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR CAPITAL BUSINESS)
February 3, 2013

As the nation’s automakers display their wares at the Washington Auto Show this week, many aim to sell attendees on the technology inside the cars as much as their sleek exteriors and powerful engines.

From navigation systems to smartphone apps to Internet connections, consumer technologies are becoming a standard feature in cars at any price point. As a result, they’ve become the latest way a carmaker can differentiate itself from its competitors.

“In the past, we’ve always been focused on what was specifically automotive,” said Jim Buczkowski, director in research and innovation at Ford Motor Co. “The automobile [was] a bit separated from other environments. The rubber tires contact the road, and that’s about it. Today, everything is becoming connected.”

The trend hasn’t come without its challenges. For one, consumer electronics fall in and out of favor faster than many people replace their vehicles. What’s more, innovation in the consumer electronics industry often outpaces that of the automotive sector.

That’s forced some automakers to rethink the way they integrate technology into their newest models. At Audi, for example, much of the consumer technologies in the car are built into a chip that can be swapped out for the latest version without replacing the entire car.

Several new Audi models also contain broadband-quality Internet access that allows motorists to search for information or view satellite images of their route in real time, much as they might from a home computer.

“Connectivity has become one of the mainstays for how you live,” said Anupam Malhotra, Audi’s senior manager for connected vehicles. “Access to some of the best information out there is something we take for granted now. The car cannot be a place where you don’t have that access.”

Patrick McComiskey, a 30-year-old Frederick resident, said at the car show last week that consumer-oriented technologies help keep younger demographics interested in cars.

“The younger generation is most concerned about their phones,” he said. So carmakers “need all of the technology incorporated into even the most affordable cars.”

Distractions grow

But safety concerns preclude companies from simply recreating your home office or living room on wheels. Federal regulators have grown increasingly concerned about the distractions that technology creates.

Some automakers have responded by implementing voice and Bluetooth technologies that allow drivers to keep both hands on the steering wheel. Others have sought to make smartphone applications and components that are better suited for the car.

Toyota, for example, has created a suite of popular consumer applications, such as Pandora Internet Radio and Facebook, whose menus have been simplified to require less driver interaction.

“Allowing the customer to connect with any content, any time is something we as automakers need to be cognizant of, and wrestle with, from a driver-safety standpoint,” said Jon Bucci, Toyota’s vice president of connected-vehicle technologies.

Amer Aijaz, electronic strategy manager at Volkswagen of America, said that many technologies, such as rearview cameras or driver alerts, are designed to make the experience behind the wheel both enjoyable and safe.

“Cars are becoming more and more complex, with more and more sensors. It creates new opportunities for new safety features and intelligence the car can offer to customers to make the right decision at the right time,” he said.

Jack Russell and T.J. Harbaugh, 19-year-old friends from Great Falls, toured the showroom floor Friday. The pair agreed that the new technologies are useful and make cars more appealing, but disagree on whether they come at a worthwhile cost.

“A lot of the aging generation, who are used to the old ways of doing things, will say the new stuff makes things harder,” Russell said. “For me, I only know the new stuff.”

“The new technology does make the car, overall, better,” Harbaugh contends. “But if something goes wrong, it can go from a $20 fix to a $200 fix.”

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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