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Dealer Power Failure Could Stop Connected Cars

by Roger Lanctot | Mar 03, 2013

When visiting Shanghai a couple months ago I was struck by the fact that multiple auto dealers visited during my stay did not have cars available with activated telematics systems.  This meant that the dealer was not able to demonstrate the technology to customers virtually guaranteeing consumer apathy.

This past week I was visiting car dealers in Italy and discovered a new barrier to consumer adoption, cars without power in the showroom.  Now I am the first person to acknowledge that consumers put a greater emphasis on style, drive and price than they do on infotainment and telematics (see attached slide), but cars without power in showrooms seems absurd in an age when the electronic and software content in cars is on a steep rise relative to the value of the vehicle.

These incidents were shocking to me because I experienced the telematics disconnect in multiple dealers in China (FAW Toyota, Nissan, BMW) and the power failure in multiple dealers in Italy (Fiat, Volkswagen, Hyundai).  The Chinese experience was exceptional because in the past I have had successful telematics demonstrations at Buick, Cadillac, Toyota, Lexus and Roewe dealers.

At the time of my visit to Shanghai, the dealer said that there was only one BMW in all of Shanghai that had telematics service provisioned for the purpose of providing a customer demonstration, but that vehicle was located on the opposite side of town.  The Nissan and FAW Toyota dealers simply had not activated any of their cars.  The only similar experience from my past was with Roewe’s Inkanet-equipped 350 which was most often lacking power on the dealer floor because the Android-based infotainment system had drained the battery.  (Roewe eventually installed Inkanet demonstration kiosks with their own power.)

The experience in Italy was surprising for the manner in which it was discovered.  The hatchbacks of many of the cars – which close electronically – were all ajar, not completely shut.  The natural instinct when one sees a door that is not fully closed is to give it an added shove or open and close it again.

Attempts to close these hatchbacks brought either a panicked or slightly amused response from the dealer sales person who had to explain that the hatch was powered and, when left on, tended to drain the battery in the showroom rendering the feature useless and the hatch not “closable.”  Usually the dealer had taken the added measure of wrapping paper or cardboard around the latch to prevent damage from customers trying to slam the hatches shut.

Is this problem emerging because cars are sitting too long in showrooms unsold?  Are dealers trying to avoid paying steep electric bills?  Not likely.

What is more likely is that dealers simply consider the electronics in the car to be a low priority, a fact that is borne out by Strategy Analytics research (http://bit.ly/XLOWpJ - Vehicle Purchase Behavior and Priorities of Chinese Consumers).  They have either reached this conclusion on their own in reaction to customer behavior or they are responding to a lack of auto supplier focus on selling sophisticated infotainment systems.  The danger, of course, is that dealers are following the lead of the factory.  If OEMs are not making a priority of infotainment systems then low attach rates and low customer satisfaction scores will result - ie. a self-fulfiling prophecy.

It may also be that dealers don’t want to engage in resolving consumer confusion regarding smartphone connections, voice recognition, navigation systems and apps.  Years ago Fiat was touting Blue&Me with point-of-purchase materials throughout much of Europe, but Blue&Me signs are no longer present in Fiat dealerships in Italy.

The picture is even more complex for Fiat, given the presence of Garmin, TomTom, and Magneti Marelli/Wind River navigation system options on its cars.  But Volkswagen has a growing range of infotainment options, as well, none of which could be demonstrated at the dealer visited in Italy.

The one exception encountered during this brief dealer tour was Hyundai.  Hyundai had a large sign touting the special edition of its i20 with a Pioneer infotainment system (the Aha Radio) enabling connection to a customer’s iPhone to access content and applications.  The dealer opened the hood to engage the battery to enable the demo, which amounted to a self-demo of the system which paired quickly and streamed audio via the supplied cable.

The sad reality is that solutions exist for both the telematics system provisioning problem in China and the power failure in Italy.  But the message is clear.  Selling infotainment and telematics systems introduces a new challenge to the process of selling cars – calling attention to power requirements, user interfaces, smartphone connections and apps.

Car makers from Ford and GM to BMW and Hyundai have introduce special dealer training programs and even Apple-like genius bars to bring customers – and dealers – along on the technological journey.  Clearly more guidance and support are needed if the industry is to achieve success with connected cars.  But making sure cars in showrooms are powered and that embedded telematics systems are provisioned seems like pretty basic stuff at this stage.

 

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