I spent the first day of the Los Angeles Auto Show at the Connected Car Expo last week, a day-long series of panel discussions and roundtables on how the electronics industry is changing and influencing the automotive industry. Over the span of eight hours, several things became abundantly clear: People don’t really care about it, we don’t like what we already have, and dealers are having trouble selling it. If the past is any indication, you’re not going to have a choice in whether to buy this equipment in the future.
We Don’t Care
How the electronics industry is integrating itself into the automobile is an important topic that a wide range of people should care about. A lot of people have put a lot of time, effort and expense into making the Connected Car Expo a success. C-level staff from some of the world’s biggest car manufacturers showed up to talk about how their companies were planning to make use of new technologies that would not only connect cars to each other, but connect them to the infrastructure, and even get to a point where they take over from us as drivers.
People in attendance were media like me, that got into the conference for free, and other interested parties who pay up to $775 for premium access.
It’s important, interesting stuff, but when I looked around the room at any given point during the day, the hall was at half capacity. There was no point during the entire conference where you couldn’t walk in and get a good seat. I walked in during the third conference — having watched the first two simulcast on a screen in the LA Convention Center’s main lobby — and immediately walked to the very front row.
It wasn’t like people weren’t there.
Contrast that with any basic automotive introduction during the show itself. It was a mob scene, to the point where you really needed to go to every other press conference to get anywhere close to the front.
The introduction of the Porsche 911 Carerra GTS was so packed it took 10 minutes to get back out once the conference was over. And this is a car that looks almost identical to any Porsche in the last 15 years.
Despite the fact that we’re on the verge of giving control over to electronic systems, when the time comes to actually learn about this stuff, we hardly even feign interest.
We Don’t Like What We Have
Microsoft had been building something called the AutoPC in conjunction with Clarion since 2000, but it was an add-on from the aftermarket. In the original press release for AutoPC, Microsoft announced:
“The Clarion AutoPC fits into most automobile dashboards, and may look like a souped-up car stereo. It has an eight-color LCD screen on its detachable faceplate. It has a high-powered AM/FM stereo with integrated Digital Signal Processing (DSP) equalization and a built-in 35-watt x 4 channel amplifier. And it has a CD player. But because the Auto PC** uses Windows CE, it also offers much more. Unlike a regular car stereo, the Auto PC CD-player doubles as a CD-ROM drive, allowing users to load applications onto their Auto PC and access things like maps. It also allows users to access their favorite radio station with a simple voice command.”
Using later, renamed versions of the very same Windows Automotive embedded automotive operating system, in 2007, Ford announced the SYNC partnership with Microsoft at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It was really the first time that an automaker jumped into bed with a software company to such a significant degree.
It received two awards in 2007 and 2008, from Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. In the media circa 2008, the system was fairly well reviewed. In 2008, The Auto Channel wrote “Sync is stunningly useful technology for anyone who spends more than five minutes a day driving.” CNET said “Ford’s Sync system gives the 2008 Focus SES one of the most sophisticated media and communications interfaces available.” Even the notoriously bitchy The Truth About Cars said “Ford and Microsoft have made the best combined media / phone integrated system on the market.”
But quite obviously, nobody who writes about these things knew what they were talking about. By 2011, Ford was getting absolutely hammered, and not by the people who get paid to write about new products. No, it was by the poor schmucks who went out and bought this stuff and had to live with it every day.
“People were finding several problems with the system in that it would crash, freeze, black out,” said J.D. Power’s David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research. “Beyond that, people complained that it was more complex to use than they would like.”
That year, Ford sank from fifth place in J.D. Power’s Initial Quality ranking, all the way to 23rd, and it was a slide that continued for at least another year. Nobody had mechanical problems, and it wasn’t about panel gaps or stitching on the seats. It was almost solely at the feet of MyFord Touch, a $1,000 add-0n to the SYNC system that brought touch-based functionality like you’d see on an iPhone to the dashboard.
“There is an understandable desire to bring these technologies to market quickly,” Sargent added. “But automakers must be careful to walk before they run.”
The trouble now, according to J.D. Power’s Renee Stevens, is that auto manufacturers aren’t getting much better.
In every measurable area, automotive quality improved drastically through the 1990s and into the late 2000s — except infotainment, navigation and connectivity features. They’ve been getting worse, not better.
You can watch Renee Stevens’ entire talk in the video link below:
That’s a pretty significant indictment, but for right now, it’s regarding mostly entertainment and navigation functions, or things that are nice to have in a car, but don’t impact how it drives down the road.
But in 2014 and 2015, we’re seeing more and more electronic features that have a lot to do with how the car drives down the road, before we’ve sorted out all of the bugs in the less critical functions. If you’re not satisfied with how your navigation system accepts a voice command, are you going to be happy with how your car automatically brakes, or nudges your car back into its lane when you’re driving?
We Don’t Want to Pay For It
The automotive industry has been racing full throttle toward autonomous or semi-autonomous cars with an “If We Build It, They Will Come” mentality. The trouble is that there’s a growing mountain of evidence that says we won’t come, especially if we have to pay for it.
The University of Michigan released a study entitled “A Survey of Public Opinion About Autonomous and Self-Driving Vehicles” earlier this year. It shows that a majority of respondents (about 66 percent) were familiar with autonomous and semi-autonomous cars, and that more than 87 percent of respondents had either a positive (56.8 percent) or neutral (29.4 percent) opinion regarding their emergence.
However, despite widespread understanding of at least the basics of the technology, and a generally positive opinion regarding self-driving cars, when researchers asked “What you be willing to pay for it?” 56.5 percent of respondents said “zero dollars.” Just 25 percent of respondents suggested that such technology would be worth $2,000, which is about $500 less than the step between a 2015 Honda Accord Sport and a 2015 Honda Accord EX, which includes a sunroof and a better audio system.
(IMAGE SOURCE: University of Michgan)
That was the crux of Mike Sullivan’s talk at the Connected Car Expo: all this technology is terrific, but who is going to buy it, and how are we going to sell it? “Luxury buyers clearly expect it,” Sullivan said, “but it’s rarely a differentiator.”
“You introduce an expensive technology piece, and as a package, it’s a lot. If you itemize it, it’s worse,” he says. “When it goes down to ‘Can I get leather and a sunroof or that?’ it gets real simple.”
If the past is any indication, it’s not going to be long before we’re buying this technology whether we want it or not.
Take a look at 2006: the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) released a study that said the risk of fatalities from rollover accidents could be reduced by 80 percent in SUVs if electronic stability control was a mandatory piece of equipment. It went on to suggest that the risk of fatalities in rollovers — regardless of the type of vehicle — would be reduced by 43 percent if electronic stability control was standard.
At the time the IIHS published its study, electronic stability control could add anywhere between $800 and $2,500 to the bottom line as an option. In an article in the Boston Globe, Royal Ford wrote “Daniel Jarvis, a Ford Motor Co. spokesman, said consumers have been reluctant to pay separately for stability control. ‘The vast majority of buyers would rather spend money on an upgraded audio system than safety equipment,’ he said.”
Does that sound familiar at all?
By March of 2007, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued its final rule on FMVSS 126, that required all passenger cars, multipurpose passenger vehicles (MPVs), trucks, and buses with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less to be equipped with an electronic stability control system.
Now take a look at the research that’s guiding policy on autonomous vehicles today:
The Rand Corporation’s “Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers” is the roadmap for policymakers who will make any and all of this technology mandatory. According to the Guide: “The IIHS estimated that if all cars had forward collision avoidance and lane departure warning, side view assist, and adaptive headlights, nearly a third of all crashes and fatalities could be prevented.”
From there, we’re just getting started. Rand calls features like forward collision avoidance and lane departure warning features “Level 0” and “Level 1” automation. By utilizing “Level 3” and “Level 4” automation — essentially ceding complete control to the car — Rand expects a significant impact on alcohol-related fatalities. “Eliminating up to a third of traffic deaths through vehicle automation just by limiting alcohol-impaired drivers would represent a dramatic improvement in roadway safety.”
“Overall,” reads the publication, “we thing the benefits of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology — including decreased crashes, increased mobility, and increases in fuel economy — outweigh the likely disadvantages and costs.”
The result of us not caring about this technology, not really liking what we already have, and our unwillingness to pay for it means that eventually, we’ll get it whether we like it or not.
In 2013, the average price of a new car was $32,086.
In 2011, NHTSA proposed better airbag anchors and “advanced glazing” that would help keep unbelted passengers inside the car in a crash. Those passive, relatively inexpensive technologies were going to add about $31 to the price of every car sold in the United States.
What’s your guess on what just mandating “Level 0” and “Level 1” technologies will add to the bottom line?