The disparity of technology amongst car manufacturers and price segments.

Audi A4 Interior

We live in a time where the technology in your pocket, is far more advanced than the technology in your car. In almost all cases, your phone is likely just a year or two old and forever competing with three to four main rivals driving technology onwards. Cars are trapped in a longer life-cycle, where even if you’re buying the latest and most expensive car on the first day it’s released, it will have been signed off for production around 4 years earlier.

If you’re buying a car that’s a bit more average, perhaps a Ford Focus rather than a Mercedes S-Class, then the technology is even older, and if you’re buying it once it’s been on the market for a few years you might be purchasing something that was designed almost 10 years earlier. If you’re paying for something at the lower end of the market, a Citroen C1 or Ford KA+ then you have even fewer options, in fact a lot of the technology on higher end cars won’t be offered at all. Just because you’re buying a low-cost car, should you be missing out on the technology that you’d expect from even the most basic smart phone. Bluetooth calling, sat nav and more?

Technology tends to trickle down within the car industry, again using the Mercedes S-Class example, ABS brakes, air bags and ESP have all made their debut on this model, before filtering down to the slightly cheaper E-Class and then the C-Class and then the A-Class. But today consumers are expecting more and more technology as it becomes ever more engrained in their lives and when for example the top of the range A-Class, can cost well in excess of the bottom of the range E-Class, then you can see why manufacturers are often inclined to not add a wide range of technology as standard.

Car manufacturers typically use technology to differentiate their range and offer this at a huge cost. This creates a technology split, where the majority of people will drive the basic version of the car, until the car manufacturer slowly adds more technology for free to compete with rivals as the car ages. For example, Mercedes created an “AMG Night Edition” of the E-Class when it was in the last year or so before being replaced which included almost all the extras you’d normally have to pay extra for, as a temptation to keep you from straying to Audi or BMW.

The german trio of Audi, BMW and Mercedes all offer technology packs to improve the fairly basic experience in their base models. If we compare the A4, 3-Series and C-Class, they all now come with basic sat nav and a fair range of safety equipment, but to get the technology you’d really want, you’d need to spend extra on option packs. For instance, with the Audi A4, there’s a technology pack at £1400, providing you with an 8.3 inch display which sits in the centre of the dashboard, a multimedia interface (i.e you can connect your phone via bluetooth to stream music) a touch controller (i.e the thing that lets you use the big screen) and satellite navigation maps.

If you want to actually have the experience you see in all the brochures, press shots and TV adverts, with the sat nav appearing behind the steering wheel, then you need to pay an additional £975 for the light and vision pack. Another technique as you can see is to bundle in options within one pack, meaning to get that one item you really want, you’ll end up paying for 3 – 4 other pieces of tech you have no interest in.

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Technology can often draw you into the car, from seeing the TV or web adverts, perhaps the journalist reviews on YouTube, but technology still feels like a compromise in today’s vehicles. Should getting a nicer sat nav unit that sits behind the steering wheel really cost £2375, remembering that generally every pound, dollar or yen of optional extras you add, dissolves into nothing when you come to sell the car. Also in the increasingly popular personal contract leasing, adding a £500 option will often be priced at £500 divided by the number of months you’re leasing the car, so it can become very expensive, very quickly. Pricing technology at a high cost point means there’s limited availability so your car would have to be a custom order which could take up to 6 months depending on manufacturer, and with only a limited number of cars having the exact combination of optional extras, the customer support and ongoing compatibility can often be limited.

Making technology more affordable would increase uptake, suggesting a lower average price could be charged as the development costs would be spread further. It also means the car market would be advancing quicker than it currently is.

The other area of technology support within the car industry is the ongoing support and updating of hardware in the market place. There are very few manufacturers which will proactively update software for anything ‘non-essential’ like your sat nav. Recently I became aware of a software update for my car – which would add the external temperature display to the in-car screen. My car has all the sensors, but the temperature screen had been missed off on the early batch of cars. To get this update I had to use a combination of web forums, Twitter and a customer service number to understand exactly what the update was and to get the detail on what to relay to the dealership as they couldn’t find a trace of it (as it wasn’t a mandatory update). I then needed to book the car into the garage and wait for almost 3 hours for the update to complete. You can see why dealerships and manufacturers aren’t keen to encourage this step as it ties up very profitable service bays which could be otherwise better used for the garage finances.

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The end result of a 3 hour software update.

Only a few manufacturers are starting to offer OTA (Over The Air) software updates, the main one being Tesla and to a limited extent on the new E-Class. Tesla’s way of updating their entire portfolio of vehicles on the road with updated software means that every car is up-to-date with the latest version and in the case of Tesla, can also be fully compatible with adding data to their Autopilot system.

Over the air software updating does bring a lot of risk. People don’t want to find their car ‘bricked’ or a feature they’re familiar with to suddenly stop working as they’ve grown to know. Generally new features can be added, but the core fundamentals (how to open the sunroof, turn up the heating, turn the radio on) shouldn’t drastically change. It also brings a lot of potential reward. If you’d bought a Tesla Model S in 2014, you’d still have an ongoing set of improvements and enhancements appearing for you as the months pass. Tesla have just rolled out version 8.0 of their software, and unlike my Mercedes C-Class, no Tesla owner has had to book their car into a garage and sit around for 3 hours while it updates.