It's the great high-tech showdown: As new technology floods into vehicles, consumers are starting to favor infotainment over safety features in their cars for the first time in recent memory.
Buyers now say they are more likely to spring for features like navigation and high-end audio than for safety-related services like tire-pressure monitoring or collision mitigation, according to the market research firm J.D. Power & Associates. Just a few years ago, safety options reigned supreme.
At some level, consumers must feel they are getting more value from infotainment.
"We started seeing the change about three years ago," said Mike Marshall, director of automotive emerging technologies at J.D. Power and Associates. "The trend was stronger than ever this year."
Sound systems are moving up the list that blind spot detection, rear-view cameras and adaptive headlight systems once dominated, he said.
Sign Of The Times
Many young buyers are driving the trend: A good number of the features are becoming less expensive and more likely to be available in moderately priced vehicles that new buyers can afford. But Marshall said it's basically consumer tastes -- not prices -- that are responsible for the change.
The shift is moderate so far. No one is expecting the market for features like parallel parking aids or active braking assists -- which help slow the vehicle in an emergency -- to disappear, especially from luxury cars. But even small shifts in consumer tastes can be important to an industry struggling to zero on its customers.
Auto suppliers and manufacturers bet billions on projections of the demand for their innovations. In a way, consumers are betting even more, as it's hard to put a value on the life saved when a feature like electronic stability control kicks into action and prevents a dangerous skid or rollover.
Costs Of Some Tech Features Are Dropping
If you had to pick just one epicenter of the innovation, Robert Bosch GmbH in Stuttgart, Germany, would certainly be a candidate. It's a source for everything from clean diesels and turbocharging, to navigation systems and emergency braking aids.
Safety is still important, know how to handle yourself on the road:
Some of Bosch's on-board technologies, such as a navigation system on the Nissan Juke and Rogue, Sentra and Versa, seem perfectly suited to the infotainment trend. Known as Nissan Connect, the low-cost navigation was first used on the Japanese brand's models sold in Europe. It's available in the U.S. for a few hundred dollars.
Initially, U.S. consumers were lukewarm about built-in navigation -- no doubt due to prices as high as $2,000. But now their popularity is growing, said Mark Peters, a director of engineering in Bosch's car multimedia division. "Once people have navigation, once they drive with it, they say they won't have another car without it," he said.
J.D. Power's survey approach makes it possible to tease out how willing consumers really were to spend their money on infotainment versus other, competing features. Researchers first ask respondents whether they are interested in a particular technology without telling them the pric, and then they reveal the price when they ask the question a second time. That answer is much closer to the consumer's buying intention.
Stereos Are Tops
In this year's study, premium sound systems tended to score ahead of adaptive headlights and rear vision camera systems. In a similar 2009 J.D. Power survey, 77 percent of the survey respondents initially said they were "definitely interested" in blind spot detection. But the percentage declined to 14 percent when they were told how much the safety innovation cost, an average of $1,600 at the time.
According to that study, less than 10 percent of those surveyed were "definitely interested" in advanced adaptive cruise control at an average price of $1,500. Adaptive cruise control helps drivers maintain a safe following distance and reduces the risk of collisions. But twice as many consumers in the survey were interested in on-board navigation systems at a similar price. Once the researchers put a price tag on infotainment options, consumer interest fell off, too, but not as steeply as it did for safety features.
That's a big change from just several years ago. In 2005, safety figures almost universally ranked higher on customer wish lists, according to Bandon-Ore.-based CNW Marketing Research. Back then, innovations such as run-flat tires and adaptive cruise control did better than MP3 players and satellite radio on consumer wish lists.
Are the auto industry and consumers going to see this trend continue? "That's looking into a crystal ball, but my opinion is that they will," Marshall said.
One tidbit from latest J.D. Power survey seems to bear that out: Nearly 40 percent of the smart phone owners in the survey said they wanted on-board systems that could read their emails to them through the car's stereo speakers. Still another change has occurred in the last few years: Today many of the innovations are extensions of smart phones and other consumer electronics and start out reasonably priced as a result.
In the past, navigation and audio systems made their way into luxury cars first and then gradually reached the mainstream. Prices started high and then declined along the way. "With these lower cost systems, you are actually seeing a shift," said Peters. "Some of these have not been introduced on high-end vehicles first."
From Optional To Mandatory
In the end, consumers might not get a choice on a few of the latest advances. U.S. regulators may impose them as part of fuel-economy and safety policies. One example is the requirement for electronic stability control in all cars by 2012.
Start-stop could soon follow suit. This system shuts down the engine automatically when a vehicle comes to a stop and starts it again when the driver takes pressure off the brake. It cuts fuel consumption and emissions, especially in congested urban driving.
Bosch introduced its current version of the system in 2007, and European automakers have put it on everything from the tiny Mini to the mighty Porsche Panamera Coupe. The German supplier delivered 1 million units worldwide last year. Frank Frister, a product manager with Bosch Start/Stop Systems, expects U.S. carmakers to be able to adapt their automatic transmissions to it quickly.
With the rising a Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards coming out of Washington, they may have no choice, he said. "A CAFE goal of 35.5 by 2016 is really an aggressive target for most OEMs," said Frister. "They will be trying to get all the fuel-saving technology they can onto the cars."
In early October, U.S. officials floated up to 62 mpg as a possible goal for 2025, either upping the ante or turning the screws, depending on one's point of view. In the future, U.S. automakers can only hope that the innovations just keep on coming -- and not just in infotainment.