Automakers stall in drive for killer app

In its road trip to find the be-all and end-all application for dashboard computing, Detroit finds that you can't necessarily get there from here.

6 min read
DETROIT--Automakers, wireless providers and electronics manufacturers are desperate to find the "killer app" of dashboard computing, but most brainstorm sessions have been washouts.

The United States has roughly 120 million wireless phones, and studies suggest that seven in 10 wireless calls begin in the vehicle. Yet only about 2.3 million Americans subscribe to services such as automatic police and hospital notification in case of airbag deployment.

That frustrates automotive engineers, who worry that the global auto industry is conceding the connectivity market to wireless carriers.

"We have learned in the last year to become very humble," Bruno Simon, director of telematics at Paris-based Renault, said here Thursday at Telematics Detroit 2002, a trade conference where executives were surprisingly candid about what they perceived as a massive disappointment in customer adoption.

"We've had many experiences, but the only thing we're sure of is that we've burned a lot of cash out and haven't brought a lot of cash in," Simon said.

Finding the next big thing may be the least of the problems facing an industry that's become obsessed with telematics--the catchword for dashboard electronics such as wireless devices, navigation tools and passenger entertainment systems. Even if drivers wanted to find the nearest Chinese restaurant via voice-recognition controls through Yahoo, or get turn-by-turn, real-time navigational cues from MapQuest, it's unclear whether the auto industry could install such systems.

It takes automakers up to four years to bring a vehicle from concept to execution, but so-called cycle times in the electronics industry average about six months. That means the most cutting-edge embedded electronics would be stale long before a vehicle rolled off the assembly line.

Another difference: Most people keep their cars between five and 10 years, versus one to three years for electronics such as cell phones. Who would be satisfied with a 10-year-old embedded system when wireless technology advances so rapidly?

"Too often, the wireless side of telematics focuses on the possibilities--all the cool things that are available," said Dave Wohleen, president of electronic and mobile communication for Troy, Mich.-based supplier Delphi Automotive Systems. "But they're forgetting about the realities of the platform."

Others were slightly more optimistic. They suggested that consumers might pay a small monthly fee for a combination of services including safety features and remote diagnostics, whereby a computer sensor alerts a mechanic to a potential overheating or sluggishness before the problem erupts into a breakdown.

"There is no one killer app," said Scott Kubicki, vice president of core services for telematics service OnStar. "It's a layering and bundling of numerous services...I don't see a future with just one brass ring."

Holy Grail or potholed trail?
It's easy to see why the auto, wireless and electronics industries are keen to find the Holy Grail of telematics. At stake is a share in the still promising, if deflated, telematics market, and each industry worries that if it doesn't stake its claim early, it'll be edged out.

As recently as July 2000, research firm IDC forecast that telematics revenue would top $42 billion by 2010, up from $1 billion in 1998. And executives fondly recalled the late 1990s, when Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy would talk of the automobile as a "Java browser on wheels."

But analysts from Adventis, GartnerG2 and others who convened this week for the two-day conference called predictions from even a year ago "outlandish." They curbed 2010 revenue estimates to $20 billion. That's still a respectable chunk of money, but not necessarily worth the massive investment required when shared between so many players.

The dramatic downsizing in expectations for telematics has caused some executives to call off the search for the next indispensable technology--especially in Detroit, where an economic downturn has led to massive layoffs and concerns that automakers have lost focus on their core businesses.

"Let the wireless carriers blow their brains out with trying to sell handsets," said Andrew Cole, wireless practice leader of London-based strategy consulting firm Adventis. "Automakers should leverage the core of their strategy--with no more squatting on the revenue chain."

Automakers also say a lack of reliable feedback thwarts their attempts to find the next winning technology. A recent survey concluded that only about 1 percent of respondents could define "telematics." But in other surveys, people have often said they want to surf the Web from their cars--a pastime that could be highly dangerous for drivers and possibly a liability for automakers.

"Sometimes you don't want to give people exactly what they're asking for," said Harel Kodesh, a former Microsoft engineer who's now CEO of Wingcast, a San Diego-based joint venture between Ford Motor and Qualcomm. "It's the classic innovator's dilemma...We need to listen to what they say their problems are, not just what they want."

Hope for the hopeless
Although the be-all and end-all application has eluded telematics service providers, executives and consultants are hopeful about several broad niches: safety and security, hands-free handset use, and diagnostics. But each has pitfalls.

Safety and security have become a foundation for telematics.

OnStar, the most popular telematics service, with 2.2 million customers nationwide, notifies police and paramedics when customers' airbags deploy. It also allows people place a call to an OnStar service center when they've been locked out of their car so that a remote technician can open the doors. OnStar says customers have called the service center for emergencies ranging from flipped vehicles to bear attacks.

The next safety and security services could go a step further. Delphi is testing a system that would track a driver's eyeballs whenever the car is in motion.

"It could literally warn the driver that his eyes have been off the road for too long and say, 'Please focus on the road,'" Wohleen said after showing a video of a driver who regained focus on the road after a warning.

Despite this promise, Cole and other analysts said this week that the auto industry has assumed a "slavish adherence" on safety and security, even though independent customer polls show that the features are a low priority. They questioned why people would pay $200 or more per year for high-tech insurance, especially when roughly three-quarters of new car buyers already own cell phones. They urged the industry to back off and focus on entertainment, such as satellite movie feeds, stock quotes and traffic updates.

Hands-free handset service is another promising area, especially in the wake of legislation last year in New York banning conventional cell phone use while driving. The European Union is considering similar legislation. Adapting a common cell phone for hands-free car use now requires after-market parts and installation costing $200 or more.

"Hands-free calling is the dominant application that customers will pay for," said Jack Withrow, director of telematics for the Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler division of Germany's DaimlerChrysler. "But I won't say it's a killer app. It's one dominant app."

The most complicated and long-term telematics technology could be remote diagnostic service, known as "diagnostics/prognostics." Such technology would provide constant "communication" between the vehicle and the dealer so that, in theory, the dealer would know exactly when a car needs a tune-up, oil change or brake inspection.

But it's unclear whether or how much customers would pay to equip their car with sensors that alert the dealer to problems. No automaker offers diagnostic telematics to the public, and tests have been extremely expensive.

Some auto veterans say they could use the service to differentiate their brand--a uniquely Detroit twist on customer relationship management (CRM). CRM software crunches consumers' demographic information to provide businesses with more data on buyers, potential buyers and defectors.

"A sensor could detect that a valve in your car would fail in six months," said Jim Geschke, vice president of electronics integration for Milwaukee-based supplier Johnson Controls, which partners with DaimlerChrysler and plans to launch telematics services in mid-2003. "You could alert the dealer, order the part, schedule the appointment, and a screen on your dashboard says: 'Mr. Brown, your EGR valve is suspect. Can we fit you in Tuesday for an appointment?'"

Geschke has radically curbed enthusiasm for the profit that Johnson Controls and the auto industry could make from telematics. But he could barely contain his giddiness over diagnostics.

"What is the cost to society of vehicle breakdowns?" Geschke asked. "It's billions of dollars each year, and we could almost eliminate it."