Better cars, not more gizmos

What is the difference between an Audi, Mercedes, Volvo or a BMW? Not much. Or to be more precise, not enough.

In terms of the features they carry, they are becoming more and more alike. So car makers will have to do more in the future to distinguish their products from those of their rivals.

The perceived wisdom is that this will be best achieved with telematics. Stuff the passenger cockpit with endless electronic wizardry in a bid to add value and generate new streams of revenue. In-car entertainment, DVD players, plasma screens, internet access, voice-activated controls, satellite navigation are but a few of the systems manufacturers would like to see customers pay for as standard.

The average auto executive cannot abide the thought that consumers are presently spending money with third-party suppliers to fit some of these gizmos to their vehicles independently.

It is true that to date car makers have offered a limited range of audio technologies with their vehicles. But if they want to improve, it means working with a new set of partners in the information communications technology sector – software companies, mobile phone operators and even content providers such as AOL and Yahoo.

However, the automotive industry has a distinctly patchy record when it comes to telematics ventures. Ford and GM have both suffered difficulties. Some at Ford now doubt whether telematics will ever bring new profits to the company at all. Other industry experience suggests customers will be less than willing to pay for such non-essentials.

This is likely to encourage car makers to seek to create a value in the technology by linking it to safety applications, such as emergency call devices and diagnostics. But this is technology for technology’s sake, and while it might interest the nerds among us, it is the wrong way to approach such serious issues.

DVDs and plasma screens are not useful things for the industry to pursue when the sector is crying out for more to be done to improve efficiency and cut emissions, a value that all drivers will understand.

Which brings us to the inescapable question of sustainability. Anyone who argues against private car ownership is wasting their breath. But there is something to be said for encouraging a more sparing use of private transport. We must beware the dangers of turning our cars into the centre point of our lives. They should not be designed as living rooms on wheels, cocoons full of creature comforts that have nothing to do with the realities of driving or the dangers of being on the road.

If the likes of Ford are going to lose money on efforts to import existing technologies into its vehicles, then maybe it shouldn’t bother. It could better spend its resources on doing something wholly new to lead the market.