TomTom, best known as a maker of portable navigation devices, is gaining traction as a supplier of OEM-installed equipment, the company’s North American sales chief says.

The Netherlands-based supplier recently inked a contract with Mazda to provide in-dash navigation systems for the recently launched Mazda CX-5 cross/utility vehicle and is negotiating to provide units to other vehicles in Mazda’s lineup.

But Mazda isn’t TomTom’s first foray into the OEM-installed business. Andrew Plamondon, director-auto sales for North America, says the company has been supplying Renault with its Carminat TomTom system since 2009 and has shipped more than 1 million units.

TomTom also has been supplying Toyota to a limited degree in North America and Europe over the past several years and is the producer of the “Blue and Me” system used by Fiat and Alfa Romeo.

But TomTom still has growth aspirations in the OEM space and can offer auto makers solutions traditional suppliers cannot, Plamondon says.

“For the past 10 years or so, a lot of (auto makers) have been working with companies that have experience with audio systems and have added navigation as a feature,” he tells WardsAuto. “We can spread the development costs over a much larger fleet of devices, so the core technology we develop for consumer applications can be carried over for a much lower cost.”

That hidden benefit has attracted the attention of several North American auto makers with which TomTom is having discussions, he says, while declining to reveal identities.

Many of the companies the supplier is talking with are looking to make navigation a larger part of their brand as they face increased pressure from federal regulators to discourage distracted driving. Plamondon points to TomTom’s voice-recognition technology as one important option.

Indeed, navigation-system installation rates among U.S. light vehicles have risen steadily over the past 10 years. In 2002, only 0.7% of LVs sold were equipped with the technology, according to WardsAuto data, hitting 2.0% in 2003 before nearly tripling to 5.8% in 2004. Last year, 29.4% of all LVs sold came with navigation.

Some auto makers that license TomTom’s technology prefer to change certain elements to fit their brand, while others use the navigation system as-is.

Fiat posed a unique situation when it approached TomTom about customizing a navigation system for its 500 B-car. TomTom provided the small car with a system similar to the supplier’s portable units. On the 500, it sits in a specially designed cradle on top of the dash that provides the unit with power.

The TomTom unit has some integration with the 500’s other systems but is “more or less” a standard navigation device, Plamondon says. But because it was developed to be sold as an OEM product, it went through rigorous testing.

“Fiat wanted to focus on making the (TomTom unit) as robust and secure as possible, but also antitheft and removable,” he says. “They wanted a low-cost navigation system with some integration with the vehicle that serves as an added human-machine interface component.”

What also makes the supplier stand out is its willingness to provide OEMs individual pieces of its technology, including its traffic service, which provides live updates and continuously updated map data.

“We license our map content for a lot of different companies, such as BMW in North America,” Plamondon says. “We’re trying to bring those ingredients individually or bundled for car makers.”

TomTom’s move to enter the OEM arena is not an indication it intends to stop making personal navigation devices, he says. But with the increasing proliferation of smartphones and other portable devices, the business “won’t continue on forever.”

Right now, the OEM navigation field is wide open. The greater processing power inherent to newer in-car systems is providing TomTom opportunities for features that cannot be included in a portable unit.

“Having that speed and computational power lends itself to a lot of things, including navigation, rear-seat entertainment and streaming audio,” Plamondon says. “So navigation becomes an element of our infotainment architecture.”

One new feature that may help TomTom forge additional OEM partnerships is its navigation system’s capability to download celebrity voices.

The voices, which are available at a nominal fee, range from popular singers, cartoon characters and sci-fi villains, including rapper Snoop Dogg, The Simpsons’ Homer Simpson and Star Wars’ Darth Vader.

Once added, the character’s voice provides navigation throughout route guidance, using its personal catch phrases, such as Vader saying “Depart; your destiny lies with me. Obi Wan knew this to be true.”

TomTom began offering the character voices several years ago, launching with British comedian John Cleese, and constantly is on the lookout for new additions, spokesman Yann Lafargue says.

In some cases, such as with Snoop Dogg, the celebrities approach TomTom about adding their voices to the growing portfolio. “Snoop Dogg was really keen to have his own voice,” he says. “It was kind of a personal wish.”

TomTom generally has to attain rights from the studios, negotiate terms and then secure actors to record the voices. Individual celebrities or the studios receive a fee for each download. “It’s a really good business,” Lafargue says. “We have a plan that on a quarterly basis we will add new voices.”

bpope@wardsauto.com