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Here's why new car tech is four years out of date

Lucas Mearian | May 7, 2013
Think you can upgrade your cars hardware? Not anytime soon

As you pore over the technical features built into Ford's latest vehicles, one spec you'll notice in those that include a SYNC entertainment system is the 10GB hard drive for storing music.

No, they didn't drop a zero. That's a 10.

Ford isn't alone when it comes to offering skimpy hard drives. Most automobile companies are two to four years behind the consumer technology curve, according to industry experts.

So while you can buy a 1TB hard drive for your computer for less than $100, or get 16GB of flash storage on a basic iPhone for $200, don't expect that new car to match that kind of hardware anytime soon.

"The iPhone was introduced in 2007. The cars being sold in 2012 and 2013 were just being planned then," said Scott Fosgard, a spokesman for Infotainment systems at General Motors.

Fosgard said the automobile industry has been shell-shocked by the speed with which technology has permeated its ranks.

In 2007, for example, infotainment systems ranked 25th on GM customers' wish lists. Today, infotainment is fourth on the list, according to Fosgard.

A long product cycle

While mobile technology evolves in a world of rapid product cycles, the auto industry has a longer product cycle curve -- much longer, as in five to seven years.

In part, that's because auto design and manufacturing involves meeting a lengthy set of specifications that, once tested for reliability, generally don't change during production.

With the exception of high-end cars, such as those from Mercedes Benz and or the electric Tesla, most car manufacturers don't even allow owners to upgrade their car's hardware as it ages. Even simple infotainment system upgrades now offered by major manufacturers such as Ford and Chevrolet require owners to bring their cars into the dealership.

"Imagine if you had to go to Best Buy to upgrade the software on your phone?" said Thilo Koslowski, a distinguished analyst at Gartner.

While car companies say their manufacturing and test cycle places them about two years behind the consumer technology curve, Koslowski said it's really closer to four years.

"The industry is trying to figure out how to accelerate bringing technology into automobiles," Koslowski said.

Much of the tech lag time in the automobile industry has to do with self-imposed and government-required reliability standards. Consumer electronics have far lower standards when it comes to temperatures and shock resistance. Not only do car companies have to ensure the technology works, but tech manufacturers have to build to a stricter set of standards.

"Inside your vehicle, technology has to be able to live from 70 degrees centigrade to minus 40. Your phone and computers don't' have to meet those requirements," said Jim Buczkowski, a Henry Ford Technical Fellow and director of Electrical and Electronics Systems at Ford Research and Innovation.


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