DBC Network

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Future of Cars is Gadget-based, not Mechanical

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 24x7), 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?

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