NOVI, MI – As more-sophisticated telematics and connectivity solutions migrate to in-vehicle infotainment systems, auto makers must continue adapting to the desires of fickle consumers tied to the rapid advancements of the personal-electronics industry.

From wireless syncing with the latest hand-held devices to smart navigation systems and on-board Internet, experts at the recent Telematics Detroit 2008 conference here agree differentiation of the latest electronic technologies will be key to influencing buyers’ purchasing decisions.

“The customer is becoming more fragmented,” says Joe Berry, Ford Motor Co.’s head of product and business development for Sync wireless connectivity. “It’s not enough (anymore) to say, ‘This is unique, I’ll pay for this.’”

Although incorporating new features seems a simple enough ploy to attract tech-savvy customers, added value must accompany new technologies, Greg Geiselhart, manager of marketing and industry relations-WirelessCar, says, noting system customization and personalization will become increasingly important.

Infotainment interfaces also should provide a new interactive experience for the user, he adds, but most buyers don’t want to pay extra for the additional features.

Randy Giusto, vice president and general manager of mobility, computing and consumer markets at research firm IDC, agrees additional fees will not sit well with most consumers.

However, recent IDC survey data indicate a “sweet spot” between $100 and $300, where new technologies can be introduced on a vehicle with minimal grumbling from customers.

Other results of IDC’s polling of navigation and infotainment-system usage and perception show younger buyers are concerned about advanced cellular-phone compatibility, while older users are more interested in integrating portable navigation units.

Both groups are adamant about not having advertisements accompany new electronic features, Giusto says.

In addition, he says auto makers and their technology partners must develop compelling hardware solutions differentiated by system content; embrace open-source platforms for greater degrees of personalization; and adopt creative, incremental pricing strategies that will offset higher development costs and soften the blow to buyers.

“No one owns the customer, but those closest to the point of sale have the greatest influence (on purchasing choices),” Ford’s Berry says.

And while OEMs still have the advantage in this area, he cautions against lumping all telematics users together.

“Proper bundling (of technology) is key,” Berry says, noting the importance of differentiating between specific customers looking for a certain feature and general consumers that want greater functionality overall.

Helping to achieve these goals will be the adoption of open-source technology, which allows users to upload third-party applications and features to a vehicle for greater customization.

However, the lack of a standardized operating system for vehicle electronics makes widespread integration of open-source features a difficult process, Kai Hackbarth, product manager-ProSyst Software GmbH, says, noting the potential of a Linux-like interface for the automotive industry.

“There currently is a vibrant software ecosystem (in vehicles), but it is not auto-specific,” adds Vincent Rerolle, Linux division senior vice president and general manager-Wind River Systems Inc.

Current operating systems, such as Microsoft Corp.’s automotive version of Windows, are becoming more flexible in their applications. But they still must be heavily configured to a specific manufacturer’s requirements.

Fleet operators may be the first to look at open-source solutions, Geiselhart says, due to their association with a wider variety of products and vehicles.

He suggests a separate version of an interface for each OEM may prove more beneficial than one ubiquitous solution, referring to software issues that in the past impacted whole Linux desktop-computer networks.

Regardless of what technologies and features eventually come out on top, “the auto industry is ripe for taking steps toward harmonization,” Wind River’s Rerolle says.

msutton@wardsauto.com