DETROIT – U.S. auto makers not only face the challenge of keeping cars fresh for younger drivers, but also in predicting what they want in a vehicle before it ever comes to market.

Auto industry executives speaking at the 2013 SAE World Congress here focus mainly on technology in the vehicle and exterior design, agreeing both are critical as consumers seek vehicles that are a reflection of themselves.

Hyundai has gone so far as to hold “tastemaker” conferences with car buyers across the U.S., asking what capability they would like a new vehicle to have in addition to serving as a means of transportation. The auto maker monitors wish-lists for telematics and looks for drivers’ input on what commands can be automated.

“Innovation requires thinking differently and not just asking the obvious,” Michael O’Brien, vice president-corporate planning and strategy for Hyundai, tells attendees. “There are people who are thinking of what they don’t have and what they can have that doesn’t exist.”

A key conclusion drawn from tastemaker conferences is that car buyers want optional technology to be built into the purchase price, rather than added to the sticker later. He says Hyundai has been boosting its standard telematics options and looking for ways to cut costs elsewhere.

What’s learned at these sessions is applied to Hyundai vehicles worldwide, O’Brien tells WardsAuto on the sidelines.

“The tastemaker thing, we’ve done for a while now,” he says. “It’s covered a wide range of products. You’d think Veloster would be the (vehicle) we’d do it with, but it’s also done with premium products and workhorse products.”

At Chrysler, chief designer Ralph Gilles lists younger drivers, women and Baby Boomers as three critical markets the industry should cater to.

Gilles swats at criticism of manufacturing the Dodge Challenger muscle car when trends appear to skew toward smaller, alternatively powered vehicles.

“This car (Challenger) is like the elixir of life,” Gilles says, displaying a photo of a Baby Boomers’ enthusiast club. He notes that the Challenger has a wider color palette than any other Chrysler vehicle.

Chrysler is seeking to hire more women for its engineering and design departments, particularly for its C- and D-segment vehicles, he says, including compact and midsize sedans, cross/utility vehicles and minivans.

“I’m a little saddened when you go to the career fairs and see how little (interest) women (have in joining) the automotive industry. Women can offer input about driving dynamics, from comfort to design to touch points, many men would not think of.

“The minivan team I have is almost all women, which wasn’t the case in the past,” Gilles says about Chrysler’s forthcoming replacement for either the Dodge Caravan or Chrysler Town & Country.

“In certain segments, the women trump the men no matter what. You’d be foolish not to engage them.”

afoley@wardsauto.com