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New-car ‘extras’ fuel drivers’ passion for connection

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Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
An Acura On Demand Multi-Use Display with navigation system Monday, Nov. 17, 2014.

With only a touch of humor, Kevin Hamlin describes a digitally directed car trip he sees not far down the road.

A worker gets a cell phone reminder of an eye-doctor appointment and quickly makes his way to his car. There, the car picks up the streaming information from the phone and maps out the quickest route to the doctor’s office. That route changes because the navigation system picks up word of a crash. Then, a parking app searches nearby garages for a spot, for which it then puts the fee on the owner’s credit card.

Staying in touch is the reason car electronics have moved greatly beyond the days of the AM-FM radio with an eight-track tape player.

“As sad as it is to say, nobody wants to lose connection,” says Hamlin, a senior systems analyst for IHS Automotive, a Colorado-based information and research firm.

“Connectivity is the key,” agrees Mary Beth Belsito, a sales and leasing consultant at Baierl Acura in Wexford.

Now, the electronic system in a car is boosted with high-definition reception and satellite radio, a CD player, advanced sound with 16 speakers, an MP3 connection, navigation system, DVD player and a text and email link, which are voice- controlled.

Oh, yes, everything is voice-controlled, including the climate system.

“It is all cellphone-related,” says Matt Gerlach, service and parts manager for Hyundai of South Hills, a part of the No. 1 Cochran group. “People all want to stay connected to their phones, their cars, their laptops, their tablets.”

But the ease with which information and entertainment is provided is taking a bite out of some of those technological advances. Scott Lesick, a sales consultant at Schults Ford in Harmarville, says some buyers are skipping the headrest-mounted DVD players for the back seat because kids can watch their tablets.

“You don’t have to pay $1,995 when you can get a tablet for, what, $79?” he says.

Such developments are playing a role in the purchase of vehicles.

Rob Frazzini of Wexford had a list of electronic features he wanted when he went shopping for a car this year. Car electronics are so important to automakers, he says, that the manfacturers that succeed are the ones that “get the message” and provide the equipment buyers want.

Frazzini and his wife, Anne Zacharias, bought a 2015 Acura after looking at more expensive cars that “disappointed” him in poor electronic offerings. He says the more expensive brands are relying on wood and leather instead of inputs and connections.

Manufacturers need to pay attention to development, says Joe Wiesenfelder, editor of Cars.com, a website concerned with all things automotive.

He says portable navigation devices, such as phone-driven Google Maps, are pushing aside those built in cars or even Garmin-like monitors because they are updated more frequently. “In that regard, they’re more superior to both,” he says.

Unlike a car, which Americans keep for several years, the phone itself is replaced every couple of years. “Most car-navigation systems remain frozen in time.”

The up-to-date nature in app-driven systems is leading car systems in a new direction, Hamlin says. Rather than being limited by the equipment in the unit, they will be more like a laptop or a tablet, capable of using whatever app the user chooses.

Hamlin says systems are built around the concept of “telematics,” or the sharing and using of information. Advanced telematics will lead to navigation systems that are updated almost constantly, he says. It also will lead to more sophisticated judgment on the part of the systems.

For instance, Hamlin says, navigation systems will be able to offer routes with fewer hills to electric cars, so they can use less power. And music will be provided more through streaming connections. Hamlin can see the disappearance of CD players in as little as five years. But, he says, even though systems such as iHeartRadio are popular ways of making an on-air connection, he doesn’t see AM-FM radio going anywhere soon.

An IHS report says the “vehicle becomes just another node in the network, an extension of the user’s digital and social lifestyle. A ‘connected’ car also is more comfortable, safer and energy-efficient, having early access to important information such as weather reports, traffic jams or road accidents. According to a recent study, 60 percent of new cars will be connected by 2017.”

Todd Perschke, a sales consultant at Baierl Acura, says electronics have become a steadily increasing area of inquiry from clients. More than 75 percent come in with firm ideas on what they want in a system.

Sales and equipment professionals say there is an age demographic to interest in electronics. Interest tends to fade quickly at 50, they say, but grows so quickly in the other direction that electronics are not just an option for people in their 20s — they are expected.

A car owner needs to think of that clientele, too, Wiesenfelder says. While the options can seem extravagant now, he urges buyers to “load it up.”

“The features that may be optional now are likely to become more common or even standard in a new car’s lifetime,” he says. “As a result, if the car you buy now doesn’t have those features, it will be less desirable in a few years.”

Outdated connections to electronic devices, he says, are “today’s equivalent to buying a car with a tape deck during the CD era.”

Bob Karlovits is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7852.

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