Who's Winning the Fight for the Best In-Car Technology?

BMW and other manufacturers believe that shoppers will be seeking out the vehicles that offer the most seamless and powerful digital technologies.
BMW and other manufacturers believe that shoppers will be seeking out the vehicles that offer the most seamless and powerful digital technologies.BMW

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By Paul A. Eisenstein

There was a time when buyers measured the appeal of a vehicle based on such things as styling, performance or the availability of features like power windows and leather seats. But these days, shoppers are seeking out the vehicles that offer the most seamless and powerful digital technologies.

Next month, BMW will launch its new Connected Plus service, an update in an expanding line-up of digital features and services that have been added to the Bavarian maker's cars in recent years. The new system will not only help you plot out the best route to your destination but use real-time traffic reports to give you a heads-up when it’s time to leave. Still running late? It will send out an alert to the folks you’re meeting to let them know when they can expect you to arrive.

BMW's new Connected Plus service uses real-time traffic reports to give you a heads-up when it's time to leave — and even sends out an alert to the folks you're meeting to let them know when they can expect you.BMW

BMW is by no means the only maker racing to introduce such high-tech features into your car, truck or crossover. Ford, for example, now lets you access Amazon’s Alexa with a tap of a button on the steering wheel. Among other things, you can use that digital voice assistant to have your favorite beverage waiting at Starbucks for your morning commute.

Related: Ford Goes High Tech to Connect Cars, Coffee, and Alexa

“We think our cars need to play well with the digital lifestyle owners choose,” Tom Brenner, head of BMW’s digital services, told NBC News during a tour of the company’s technology center in downtown Chicago.

Tech My Ride

The facility more closely represents what you’d expect to find in Silicon Valley than a typical automotive development center. Filled with young, latte-drinking cyber-geeks, it works at a pace that sees new products, services — and updates of existing software — roll out, on average, every two weeks. Consider that the average BMW vehicle has a life cycle of about six to seven years, with only a modest update halfway through.

BMW’s intense focus on digital technology might seem an oxymoron considering the brand’s long-running advertising tagline, “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” But Brenner and other company officials say there should be no surprise. Why, they ask, would you expect that the typical American’s increasingly digital lifestyle be interrupted once they slip behind the steering wheel?

Related: Car Tech Is the Biggest Draw at the 2017 CES Show

BMW began its foray into technology with the launch of the 2001 7-Series. Its flagship sedan introduced the concept of an iDrive, a sort of mobile mouse that controlled an array of onboard functions, including navigation, audio and climate control. The list of features built into today’s cars has rapidly escalated, especially with the debut of driver assistance technologies like Blind Spot Detection, as well as the addition of hands-free Bluetooth phone and audio pairing.

"The new asset in the automotive business is data."

BMW Connected Plus will go several steps further. It tracks appointments in an owner’s calendar and, if there is driving involved, it calculates not only driving time but how long it might take to walk to your car and then help you find where to park. You’ll get an alert 10 minutes before you should leave to give you time to get ready.

You can then ask your Alexa device to turn the car on and, on the sort of sweltering summer day that Chicagoans faced this week, turn on the air conditioning.

Connected Cars

There are plenty of other services coming, including the ability to access e-mail on your Microsoft Exchange server, even dictating a voice reply.

(Some functions, BMW and Microsoft stress, will be disabled when the car is in motion to avoid compounding the already serious issue of driver distraction.)

Such functions are likely to become even more desirable in the years to come, explained Brenner. According to various studies by organizations like the Boston Consulting Group, one-third or more of the miles Americans travel by 2030 are likely to be in driverless automobiles. That will provide plenty of time to watch “content,” Brenner said, work, or catch up on some sleep.

Related: 90 Percent of Your Driving Won't Be in Your Own Car by 2020

“It takes only a little imagination” to think about all the possible services and features that will migrate into the automobile in the coming years,” Gerri Martin-Flickinger, the chief technology officer for Starbucks, said during a joint news conference with Ford last March.

Meanwhile, auto manufacturers are racing to pair your car with all the digital devices in your life. Chevrolet on Friday announced owners can operate the MyChevrolet app through their Apple watches to lock or unlock a vehicle, find directions to where it was parked or sound the horn.

One of the challenges will be to add new functionality to vehicles already on the road. Tesla has addressed that by incorporating over-the-air, or OTA, updates that can be used to install new services, replace old software — or even diagnose vehicle problems. Honda launched OTA capabilities with its new Odyssey minivan, and BMW is working on similar technology for Connected Plus.

Everybody's Doing It

It’s difficult to find an automaker that isn’t working on in-car technologies, and they’re partnering with the obvious list of major Silicon Valley and other tech companies: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Nvidia, Amazon, as well as major restaurant chains, digital service providers, and an endless list of smaller tech firms and start-ups.

Some manufacturers are offering their services at no charge — at least for an initial period that can run from one to three years. But all are looking for the right business equation. General Motors has developed a steady revenue stream from its OnStar service, with an à la carte menu of safety, convenience and service features.

There’s another pay-off. BMW believes it can boost its loyalty rates — measured in returning customers — by several percent, “which is worth millions of dollars,” explained Dieter May, the head of digital products and services. That’s on top of potential revenue streams from various paid services.

Yet as with other access points to the connected world, there is a potential downside.

“Data is becoming a currency, with actual value, and it must be protected," Danny Le, principal and automotive leader, at KPMG, told NBC News. "Security needs to be invested in.”

In-car technology is the single biggest source of complaints about today’s vehicles.

Indeed, the threat of hacking has become an all-consuming conversation within the automotive digital community, as it has throughout the tech world.

There are other risks. BMW took a lot of heat early on for the cumbersome operation of the original iDrive. Only with recent iterations have consumers given strongly positive reviews. Ford was similarly thrashed for problems with its early Sync in-car system. According to David Sargent, head of automotive practice at J.D. Power and Associates, in-car technology is the single biggest source of complaints about today’s vehicles.

“The new asset in the automotive business is data,” said Le.