Mattel wants all its Hot Wheels to be smart cars in the future. It gave the classic die-cast toys a high-tech boost in 2019 with NFC sensors and smart tracks. The system, called , tracks each car's speed and victories, adding telemetry and real-time feedback to the traditional play.
In the race to expand Hot Wheels ID for 2020, the company is making these smart cars a little cheaper and compatible with track sets that target preschoolers and preteens. Mattel is debuting the new ways to play this weekend at the New York Toy Fair.
For toddlers, there's the big-ticket splurge toy known as Ultimate Garage -- basically the Barbie Dreamhouse for Hot Wheels fans. This $100 set doesn't need high-tech tricks to wow a kid. A robot T. rex chases and chomps at cars racing down a looping track, built around a garage that holds over 100 cars.
But if parents buy the extra Hot Wheels ID Race Portal starter pack for an additional $35, then the finish line piece can be upgraded to sense which NFC-equipped cars are faster as they cross the finish line. The winning car and speed stats show up on an app screen, presumably on a device used by mom or dad.
For the older crowd, there's Track Builder. It's your classic build-it-yourself stunt kit. Kids create their own challenges, tell the app which design they put together and slap on a smart Portal piece for the finish line. And once again, those NFC-chipped cars can be measured on an app screen as they make it past the orange-track tricks.
Also helping extend ID's reach will be new price points. The Hot Wheels ID cars are now $5 apiece, instead of their original price of $7.
The full ID Smart Track experience, which came out last year, is the most fun way to play with the NFC-chipped cars, as it unlocks a bunch of challenges and games in the Bluetooth-connected app. The app knows exactly which track pieces are connected when playing -- unlike the other sets that only put the smarts in the finish line Portal piece accessory.
But the full Smart Track experience doesn't come cheap. It costs $180 for everything. Mattel is lowering the cost to dive in with a $120 kit that has fewer pieces. (With the idea that you can always buy expansion packs if you want to grow.)
Mattel is still making plenty of traditional non-smart Hot Wheels cars. The die-cast car is the No. 1 selling toy in the world, with 16.5 Hot Wheels sold every second and over 7 billion cars sold. But the company sees NFC as the future, where smart cars keep records of their performance stats to compare with friends, and every toy has a unique ID.
"We've always seen the endgame will be all Hot Wheels cars will have NFC chips," said Matt Brutocao, senior marketing director at Mattel.
A challenging stunt to pull off
The mixed-play system was a big investment for the company. There were 50 models of smart ID cars made for the summer launch last year. Mattel crafted high-quality app video games to create the mixed-play experience, and the toy went through more testing than any product in Mattel's history. Today's 10-year-olds never knew a world without an iPad, so Mattel's tech infusion is designed to keep that generation engaged and still deliver classic race track play.
That said, the company faces a challenge in getting parents to invest in a toy that uses an app. Toy industry experts CNET interviewed say they're seeing a general decline of interest in tech toys.
Jackie Breyer, editorial director of The Toy Insider, says she thinks Mattel did a good job with designing Hot Wheels ID. But she also sees millennial parents steering away from tech in toys to give kids a break from video games and iPad screens.
"My personal stance on tech in toys is that it just doesn't really seem to work and toy manufacturers just keep trying," Breyer said. "But when you give kids Hot Wheels, they're just happy to play with Hot Wheels, to be honest."
Hitting the educational checkpoint
That said, there's a lot of interest in tech toys that have an educational twist -- something Hot Wheels ID added late last year. Mattel partnered with Swift Playgrounds, Apple's easy-to-learn programming system for kids, which teaches coding for free using the NFC cars and an iPad app.
Juli Lennett, a toy industry analyst with NPD Group, said it can be hard to pinpoint the formula for a successful tech toy. But when it comes to Hot Wheels, it always helps if dad thinks it's cool.
"To find growth in the toy industry, "Lennett said, "sometimes you have to go after different segments of kids and parents."