BMW, Mercedes, Audi chase Ford’s iPhone crowd


BMW is bringing Twitter and Facebook to the 5-series sedan as luxury auto brands play catch-up to Ford Motor Company in the race for tech-savvy drivers. To this end, the three German leading brands are adding Internet and smartphone access to their vehicles as environmental concerns and consumer addiction to mobile devices shift the emphasis to high-tech gadgetry from horsepower. It is not yet confirmed to Business Day if the Nigerian dealers of these premium brands will be part of this latest move in automotive technology.

According to BMW sales chief Ian Robertson, “Mobile connectivity is playing an increasing role in all our lives,” “These services will continue to grow. It is a component of a competitive advantage.” For industry followers, Mercedes began offering Internet access in vehicles for the first time this year with the upgraded C class and revamped SLK roadster, while BMW last month introduced a smartphone application that allows iPhone users to access playlists and browse tweets from the car’s display.

Audi will add real-time traffic data to its navigation service in Europe this summer. Before now, luxury automakers were slow to link their cars to the Internet because of concern about safety and allowing unfiltered data into their vehicles. The proliferation of mobile devices like Apple Inc.’s iPhone is changing that, while oil prices above $100 a barrel increases pressure on carmakers to find a selling point that isn’t associated with burning fuel.

Information control:”Luxury automakers were keen on controlling the flow of information in the car to preserve the brand experience, and that slowed down the rollout of services,” said Anil Valsan, an analyst at Ernst & Young’s automotive center in London. “The high-end vehicle market can’t afford to lag anymore.” Recall that Ford provided connection to mobile devices when it launched Sync in 2007.

The system, developed with Microsoft Corp., plays music on voice command and reads tweets to drivers. Sync, which will be rolled out to Europe next year, has gained more than 3 million subscribers in North America. General Motors Co. began offering the OnStar service in 1995.

The system, which provides emergency support, navigation help and stolen-vehicle assistance, is available in more than 30 models in the U.S. and has more than 6 million users, Vijay Iyer, a GM spokesman, said in an e-mail. Luxury automakers, which traditionally have been in the forefront of integrating technology into their vehicles, are facing greater competition from mass-market competitors in networking. Against this backdrop, brands like BMW and Mercedes have to prove they are worth the higher price in a segment where connectivity offerings are playing a bigger role.

In some markets Nigeria inclusive, for high-end car buyers, in-car connectivity has become a must-have where owners of this luxury brands uses applications on their i-Phone to keep track of busy schedule and entertain their kids. For internet browsing, Mercedes’ Comand Online package costs 3,070 euros ($4,493) on the C class, including voice-recognition software and a system to monitor speed limits.

The offering allows unlimited Internet browsing while the car is stationary but restricts access to data while driving to avoid distraction. Mercedes plans to roll out the system to other models in the future. The German brand is also experimenting with new ways to interact with the increasing amount of data in cars and showed a concept vehicle last year that tracks the driver’s hand movements on a screen located on the center console.

BMW is experimenting with filtering data based on moods, such as selecting music within a range of emotions spanning from joyful to hopeless. In the real world, BMW plans to follow Audi with live traffic data later this year. It’s adding other gadgets, including a full-color display on the revamped 6 series this year. It introduced a smartphone app at the end of 2010 that allows users to lock their car and turn on the heat remotely.

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