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The auto industry needs to change to survive, and that means embracing technology

There’s no shortage of good stuff going on in Australia right now. As an American writing for an Aus-based site (and audience), I can’t help but feel a sense of kinship every time I research topics to write about. Like many of you, I love tech and video games, and I have nothing but respect for your world-famous drinking culture.

Throw in a healthy mistrust of the British and I’d like to think we have a strong foundation for a lifelong friendship.

Those aren’t the only things we have in common, though. Living in the Midwest US, I’ve seen first-hand the impact a failing auto industry can have on an otherwise strong economy, a problem your country could see firsthand quite soon.

With Ford adding their name to the list of automakers packing up and leaving Australia, not to mention the host of other car manufacturers planning on closing down, it’s clear the industry as a whole needs stop, take a deep breath and pull its head out of its arse.

The first step of that process? Embracing technology, something most carmakers have done about as well as your average senior citizen.

The future isn’t going away – and if the auto industry doesn’t adapt soon, you can bet it’ll be trampled like so many other dethroned powerhouses.

Connectivity is king

August Smart Lock keychain

With your phone now also your keys, connectivity is a minimum. (via August Smart Locks)

Conversion is no longer a secondary feature. The average smartphone/tablet can talk to everything from door locks to light bulbs and the list keeps growing.

The trend makes sense. Smartphones are incredibly versatile. They’re incredibly prevalent, too, with 65% of Australian adults using them according to Google researchers.

That makes connectivity way more than a bonus feature or expensive extra – it’s a must, and consumers know it.

Automobiles may have been immune from the change for a little while, mostly because of their own importance to consumers – for many, a car is the only way to get to the job that pays their phone bill – but that window closed a long time ago.

Every car that comes off the line, from economy-price to full-on luxury, should at minimum interface with the top mobile operating systems and their suite of standard apps.

Following this mandate obviously requires some advanced problem-solving skills. With platforms like iOS and Windows Phone, things are a little easier: given their standardised nature and focus on the ecosystem as a whole, design could focus on a stable of devices instead of individual ones.

Others – here’s looking at you, Android – would undoubtedly require some serious consideration thanks to forking and fragmentation-related problems.

But either way it’s totally doable, and it has been for quite a while now.

Some companies are realising this faster than others. BMW’s official app, which uses augmented reality to give users a combo instruction manual/troubleshooter/tour guide, isn’t just a showcase of technological convergence – it’s a picture of where everyone else should be at minimum.

Unfortunately, that means it’s also a rarity.

The arrogance or incompetence or total misunderstanding of consumers (I’d wager a bit of each) causing others to ignore new tech is clearly not acceptable to car buyers any more.

If it was, Ford et. al. would be building more plants, not shutting them down.

The features we (or at least I) need

To be fair, making a big, expensive toy like a car work with third-party products has to be difficult. While I’m no industry expert – and it should be clear this is all just one dude’s opinion – it appears to me that consumers would be happy with minimal smartphone connectivity, at least for the time being.

I know I would be. Sure, I’d be thrilled if all new cars came with remote starting/wireless locking via smartphone or tablet. But I also know that’d cost companies a ton in the way of research/design capital, and thus jack the car of autos on the whole up even further.

A smart radio, on the other hand, would be a brilliant standard feature: if I can buy a wireless docking system for my iPad for less than $100 USD, you’d think the average car radio could implement such a feature for a lot less than that.

Even then, things could (and, again, probably should) be so much better than that already. I want my car to recognise my phone when I climb in, then change a variety of settings in the car based on its discovery.

The radio should tune to my favourite station. The seat should go from my wife’s preferred height/angle to mine. A built-in mic port on my steering wheel should be able to recognise commands (think the Kinect’s voice capability), then load up GPS routes or make phone calls based on what it hears. The list goes on.

Get it together, auto industry

For the record, I understand that many of the features I listed are already available in higher-end vehicles, and that initiatives like Siri Eyes Free will hopefully speed the process up for everyone else.

I also know that simply adding smartphone connectivity won’t stop businesses like Ford from closing factories or making other bad decisions that eventually lead to closures.

But I also understand this: the fact most manufacturers are only now starting to embrace smart devices shows a stodgy, old-guard attitude that will absolutely not fly in today’s market.

In fact, I’d venture to say that same attitude is the direct cause behind most of the auto industry’s issues today, both in Australia and abroad.

It’s not specifically about the lack of technology; it’s about the unwillingness to change until the ship is already sinking.

Factory closures have a direct, negative impact on entire communities. Given the little bit I know about Australians, your government and your general attitude, I’d be willing to wager you’ll be able to bounce back from this most recent round a little better than we here in the States historically have.

But it’ll still hurt, and it’ll still make a lot of people’s lives a lot more difficult than they need to be.

That alone demonstrates a need for a fresh new outlook from the world’s automakers – and embracing technology would be a perfect way to show they’re serious about that commitment.

About the author

Evan Wade is a professional writer and journalist with a passion for all things electronic. When he’s not slaving away at a keyboard or avoiding his responsibilities with the help of his Xbox, he’s either writing fiction, strumming bass, or creating mildly humorous YouTube videos.

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