Cary Wilson recalls when electrical systems were low priorities at automakers.

"Ten to 15 years ago, you would hear from upper management at automotive companies that, `If I could figure out how to build a car without an electrical system, I would,'" says Mr. Wilson, director of electrical/electronic systems engineering at Ford Motor Co.

"There are three basic parts to the car - body, chassis, powertrain. Electrical was just `there.'"

What a difference a decade makes. On Monday, Mr. Wilson joins several colleagues on a Convergence 2000 panel in answering a question posed by moderator/electronics expert Paul Hansen: Do automakers and suppliers now consider electronics to be a "core competency?"

"I would have to say all of us in general have moved from that type of thinking a decade ago to within the past couple years there is agreement that it has to be core," says Mr. Wilson.

The value of electronic content on vehicles ranges from 8% to 15% today, but Mr. Wilson says that figure is destined to reach 40% in the near future. "You can't not make it a core competency. At Ford, it is one of the big four now."

Despite the enormous potential for in-vehicle electronics, panel members all agree that finding and retaining electronic engineers is a major challenge for the auto industry.

The solution? Making sure bright young minds are aware of the growth potential in automotive, says Larry Burns, vice president of research and development and planning at General Motors Corp.

Mr. Burns notes that 88% of the world's population doesn't own cars, and that percentage is sure to drop as markets develop. "And we have to reinforce the fact that the auto industry has a long history of profits," Mr. Burns says.

Suppliers can attract and keep good, young talent by marketing the fact that suppliers are becoming centers of expertise that automakers depend on for innovative new products, says Satoshi Negishi, managing director of automotive research and development at Yazaki Corp., a leader in vehicle electrical systems.

Perhaps most important, the panel agrees, is for the auto industry to convey a new, techno-savvy image to the public - an image that stresses the importance of electronics.