DETROIT – As automakers race to inject as many safety, security, navigation and entertainment features as possible into their vehicles, they ought to keep Mark Evangelista in mind.
The 45-year-old owner of a suburban Detroit construction company says he's had General Motors Corp.'s (GM) OnStar service installed on several cars but he hasn't subscribed or taken advantage of its one-year-free trial.
On a Denali he just leased for his business, he skipped the in-dash navigation system because it would have added $25 to his monthly payment and limited the CD player to holding just one disc instead of six.
And forget about plugging an iPod into his ride someday.
"We're not dummies — we know how to use the Internet," Evangelista says. "But driving a car is driving a car for us. It's not about playing games."
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Deciding just what technological extras to put into a vehicle is a tough call for global automakers. One analyst predicts that more than half of all new vehicles within seven years will be equipped with technologies that will connect them with the outside world.
Yet automakers have to find a way to deliver interactive bells and whistles to the motoring masses in a way that's affordable and flexible — and supports why people get behind the wheel.
Most U.S. drivers see their vehicles as a way to get around, not high-tech lounges, says Thilo Koslowski of Gartner Inc. (IT), a research company.
"You have to enhance the driving experience," he says. "It's not about replicating the Internet or movie experience in the car."
Automakers already have launched such systems as OnStar and BMW Assist. But grabbing a larger slice of the U.S. market, which is expected to grow from a $3.5 billion today to between $12 billion and $16 billion by 2012-2014, means finding a way to deliver even more.
"Everyone is understanding a piece of it; nobody is delivering the full solution," Koslowski says. "There's a business opportunity to tie the pieces together, deliver them at the right time in the right environment."
OnStar debuted about a decade ago, though GM scrapped early efforts to make it a mobile link to the Internet and now promotes it as a safety measure that can track and help drivers in trouble.
Ford's (F) first stab at such technology, its Wingcast LLC venture with mobile phone chip maker Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM), started in the mid-1990s but was dissolved in 2002. Ford said then the venture was a victim of changing technology and consumer desires.
"After the initial hype in the late '90s and early 2000s, a lot of companies bailed," says Phil Magney, principal analyst with Minnetonka, Minn.-based Telematics Research Group. "They're all back in it again, realizing long-term that the automaker has to have a wireless connection to the vehicle."
The difference between then and now, automakers say, is that they're no longer caught up in the gee-whiz gadgetry. They're finally figuring out what consumers want — but have to prove it to those who weren't impressed with the promises the first time around.
Koslowski says consumers are getting a peek of what's to come with Sync, Ford Motor Co.'s technology tie-in with Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) It which debuts this fall on the Ford Focus and will be on 11 other 2008 Ford models by the end of the year.
Sync allows drivers, using either voice recognition or steering wheel controls, to listen to their digital music players and hear text messages on their cell phones read aloud. Company officials say Sync, which also offers other features, probably will cost less than $1,000 as an option.
Developers say Sync is a platform on which they can build in all kinds of services. They envision vehicles getting software "fixes" through wireless downloads that don't require communication with the owner, or giving drivers electronic manuals that let them ask their vehicle questions about performance or maintenance.
Parents could keep track of vehicles driven by their children, with the car sending a text message if it leaves the area or drives over 70 mph, says Velle Kolde, product manager for Microsoft's automotive division.
"With our devices, all you have to do is update system software — that's one of the core parts of the value we deliver," Kolde says. But he adds, "you have to build things that consumers really want and are willing to pay for."
Koslowski and others say a system that lets drivers bring in their own portable devices has advantages over one where everything is built-in, like OnStar. Being able to add more functions after they've bought the vehicle is crucial to convincing consumers that the additional monthly cost is worth it.
Nick Pudar, OnStar's vice president of planning and business development, says GM isn't ignoring other features such as offerings geared more toward entertainment.
But OnStar's strategy has been to build on its "peace of mind" applications, such as roadside assistance, crash notification and driving directions through about 2,000 advisers at three North American call centers.
"Our systems have to make sense in the context of the use of the vehicle — that's why safety resonates so well," Pudar says. "It's a very simple interface: Three buttons on the vehicle and a live person to talk to."
Magney and Koslowski say OnStar showed its ability to evolve in April when it announced it would work with the online mapping service MapQuest to expand in-vehicle navigation.
With it, OnStar subscribers can plan their driving route at MapQuest.com and send the directions to their OnStar system, which provides voice-guided, step-by-step directions as the driver heads toward the destination.
The new service is expected to be available by the end of the year on more than 2 million GM vehicles with OnStar's Turn-by-Turn Navigation capability.
Evangelista and one of his employees, 58-year-old Vince Pulsinelli, aren't likely to sign up for the service, preferring instead to print directions from MapQuest. During an interview, Pulsinelli happened to be carrying a printout of directions.
"I can glance at this before I get in the car," Pulsinelli says, pointing at the paper. "How much of that do you really want to do in your car?"