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Car and Driver: Ford Hopes to Fend Off Apple, Google with In-Car Infotainment


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In many automotive circles, Silicon Valley’s takeover of in-car infotainment system is considered a foregone conclusion. But despite some of their clunky and cumbersome products, traditional manufacturers aren’t ready to give up that fight and ordain Apple CarPlay and Android Auto inevitable winners.


Ford, for one, believes it can withstand the challenge and present a viable alternative. The company has been collaborating with Toyota on the development of an alternative infotainment platform this year.


“We do bring capability and expertise within the vehicle,” Don Butler, executive director of Ford’s connected vehicle and services division, said during the Tu-Automotive Conference in suburban Detroit. “I know there are criticisms. But we’re getting that high quality. That core experience is essential, and we’re not going to cede that to Google and Apple.”


Infotainment systems are increasingly seen as an area where automakers can make an impression with customers. Car owners who report satisfaction with their infotainment features are up to 5.7 percent more likely to be loyal to their brand, according to a recent survey from global analytics firm SBD.


On the flip side, no company learned the harsh lessons of infotainment problems harder than Ford, which has watched its ranking in the J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study plummet based largely on in-car technology problems. The company ranked 31st out of 32 brands measured in the latest study. Butler says the company’s SYNC 3 system, which launched last summer, has been more well received.


Solving those problems is not just about retaining existing customers. As the percentage of teens and millennials who hold drivers’ licenses drops, automotive executives believe enhancing the infotainment experience might be a primary way to entice them toward traditional car ownership. “Tail fins don’t get them excited anymore,” Bryan Mistele, CEO of real-time traffic-and-parking information provider INRIX, said Wednesday. “They want a digital experience in the car.”


Beyond the in-car experience, there’s another reason OEMs want to retain their stake in infotainment: Cars will increasingly become a central cog in broader systems that connect their owners with their smart homes and smart cities. By playing the role of a virtual air-traffic controller for those connections, automakers hope to unearth new revenue streams.


Along those lines, Butler said Ford would likely pursue partnerships with a new type of customers–cities–as the company’s new Ford Smart Mobility subsidiary attempts to solve traffic congestion and offer solutions for getting around urban landscapes.


“There’s nothing I can announce here today, but you can expect announcements from us working together with cities as customers,” he said. “The mobility challenges vary city by city. Each city is different, and we’re beginning to work with cities as customers and understand where we are moving beyond the vehicle as the single-point solution for transportation.”


While Butler wouldn’t divulge details, Austin, Texas might be one city that’s high on Ford’s list of potential customers. Ford started an experiment in fractional ownership there earlier this year that’s examining whether groups of three to six people can lease and share a single car while managing schedules.


Much of that particular experiment might be managed via an app, but infotainment and telematics will retain a critical role in enabling customers to do everything from share a car to scheduling maintenance.


“The way we view it is about enabling our customers’ digital lifestyles,” Butler said. “At some point, that will be like saying ‘enabling our electrified home.’ That’s just understood. But whether it’s Mac or Android, it’s not about competition. It’s about choice.”


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