Technology — not quality — will be the driving force for the automobile industry in 2010 and the near future.

A survey of 200 automobile executives around the globe concluded that this year — and probably for at least the next couple of years — the industry will focus on pushing the technology envelope, dwarfing environmental, quality and cost-cutting issues.

The annual survey conducted last fall by Swiss-based management consultants KPMG LLC, concluded that technology will weigh heavily in manufacturers’ decisions regarding product, production and business. Everything from propulsion (hybrid, electric, natural gas and so forth) and in-vehicle electronics to assembly-line robotics, as well as mergers and acquisitions will be affected by the goal to advance technology and create products reflecting that technology.

According to the KPMG findings:

  • Companies are shifting focus from quality improvement to new products.
  • Total affordability and pricing are seen as less important than innovation.
  • Environmental concerns fell in the ratings for first time in three years.

With the number of recent recalls, some might argue that quality should be job No. 1 for carmakers. However, conventional wisdom within the industry is that the huge quality gaps that once existed between vehicle brands have been nearly eliminated.

Doug Newcomb, technology editor at Edmunds.com, summed up the carmakers’ rationale for emphasizing technology over quality this way: “This doesn’t surprise me at all. Cars are on parity when it comes to fuel economy, quality and other issues. When you shop for a midpriced sedan, they are all pretty close. Technology often tips the scale.”

Vehicle manufacturers are in a mad scramble to push their products to the forefront of consideration by the ever-expanding wave of techno-savvy consumers. Newcomb believes a vehicle’s capability to seamlessly integrate personal electronic devices, such as iPods, laptops and cellular phones, will be the basis for many consumers’ future vehicle-buying decisions. It’s why he thinks high-tech features are finding their way into vehicles at all price points rather than just more-expensive luxury models.

Ford’s voice-activated Sync system is Newcomb’s favorite example of what we can expect future in-vehicle technology to look like. Sync is a connectivity system that can integrate Ford’s voice-activated Sync system, Bluetooth phones and USB drives. It can also provide turn-by-turn navigation, 911 assist, real-time traffic and even the weather. According to Newcomb, its best feature is that it’s upgradable.

He expects the “apps” craze to find its way into vehicles as well. “Vehicles will be connected to the outside world,” he says. “The car companies that are planning for technology and working on it are going to do better.”

New technology that is either in vehicles now or coming soon includes:

  • Kia’s UVO System. Developed with Microsoft, this infotainment system is sort of Ford Sync Lite. A hands-free system, it can oversee operation of cell phones and music sources. It will feature a backup camera and a 4.3-inch color touch screen display and appear in the 2011 Kia Sorrento.
  • Infiniti’s Lane Departure Warning and Prevention. Using a tiny camera behind the windshield to detect lane markers, this system alerts the driver to an unintended lane departure and will even nudge the vehicle back to safety. It is available in the 2011 M. Other manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz and Audi feature similar systems.
  • Acura’s Active Sound Control. Not unique to Acura, this system uses two microphones inside the cabin to monitor low-frequency engine noise. When noise is detected, the system transmits an opposing frequency through the audio system speakers, canceling out the engine noise. It is available on the TL and TSX.
  • Mercedes-Benz Splitview Technology. Because U.S. regulations prohibit front-seat passengers from viewing video media unless the vehicle is parked, Mercedes-Benz has developed a screen that displays two images: one over the top of the other. From the driver’s perspective, only the navigation map is seen, while the passenger sees only the movie or whatever video has been programmed. It is available on the S-Class.
  • BMW’s Car-to-car Communication. Using WLAN technology, this system communicates directly with all other relevant vehicles in the vicinity, allowing it to send warnings to vehicles behind it regarding traffic jams, black ice on the road or a sudden rain storm.
  • GM’s Enhanced Head-up Display. Using a vehicle’s full array of sensors and cameras, this system will create a full-windshield head-up display to aid drivers in extremely low visibility events. For example, in a fog situation the vehicle would use infrared cameras to identify the edges of the road and those lines would then be “painted” onto the windshield.
  • Audi’s GPRS/EDGE. An optional modem for Audi’s MMI navigation plus system will allow the user direct access to Google for points of interest. The results are displayed on the navigation map. It will be available in the 2011 Audi A8.

<< Back to the 2010 Spring Auto Guide table of contents.

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