IFA opened to the public last Saturday, but if you're looking for in-car tech and an automaker presence, it's best to avoid Europe's largest consumer electronics show.

The expo is the overseas equivalent of the Consumer Electronics Show, bringing hundreds of manufacturers to Berlin, Germany to show off everything from 3D TVs to kitchen gadgets. If you've endured CES before, you'll feel right at home among the major tech companies (Samsung, Pioneer, Motorola, etc.) and the scads of Chinese retailers peddling their cut-priced wares to quality-averse electro-bodegas.

But unlike CES, which has enjoyed an explosion of automaker participation and major announcements in the last few years, only two automakers have a presence at this year's IFA: Ford and BMW.

The former announced plans to bring SYNC to the 2012 Focus in Europe, with support for over 19 languages, plus Ford's emergency assistance program. The 2012 Fiesta gains MyKey functionality, allowing parents to limit top speeds and audio volume, while not allowing little Danny to deactivate any of the standard safety systems.

BMW? They've got an inconspicuous, closet-sized booth we passed three times before we saw a minuscule ConnectedDrive banner plastered to the wall.

So what gives? Why the massive discrepancy between two virtually identical shows? In short: Europe doesn't seem to care about in-car tech as much as the U.S. and most automakers are happy to oblige... for now.

We reached out to a handful of automakers to understand why – in comparison to CES – there was incredibly limited automaker attendance at IFA. The answers ranged from "we'll be there next year" to "we don't see the benefit, yet."

Mercedes-Benz, which recently announced it's a title sponsor of CES and that head-honcho Dieter Zetsche will keynote next year's show, is quick to reaffirm its commitment to the consumer electronics space. A spokesperson cited the automaker's launch of its first telematics system in 1999, its keynote at Comdex and a variety of other telematics and CE-related events it's participated in over the years, but stated, "we can't be everywhere." That said, to our eyes, updates or no, COMAND is looking achingly long-in-the-tooth compared to what Audi and BMW have brought (or are bringing) to market, and it's safe to assume that a major rework is about to be unleashed.

General Motors was another automaker notable in its absence, particularly considering its plans to introduce 18 new infotainment functionalities in the next 18 months. We would've assumed that with all this in-car goodness coming down the pike, Chevrolet – or even Opel – would try to be as many places as possible, including a stand at IFA, but we assumed wrong. According to our source at GM, "Most of those launches start with the United States and then will expand around the globe."



Ford is taking a similar tack with the gradual roll-out of SYNC in Europe, but it's leaps and bounds ahead of the competition, both in the mid-level space and in traditional luxury sector.

"Technology is now our key differentiator in the marketplace," according to Ford spokesman Alan Hall. "It is how the Ford brand is defining itself and standing apart from other automakers. Technology shows have quickly become just as important to build our brand image as auto shows... and consumer technologies are fast becoming integral, critical and desirable to people's lives and the car needs to be part of that trend."

SYNC initially launched in the U.S. in 2007 and Ford's goal was to build the technology and the brand up in the States before pushing it worldwide. That caught the attention of CES organizers, who invited Ford to keynote the event in 2009 (Ford had a presence at the show in 2008) and then do the same both in 2010 and 2011. And it's been paying dividends ever since.

Ford is quickly becoming the go-to automaker for developers to create applications and new SYNC-based functionality with its infotainment system. Major partnerships and announcements are coming from Ford and its partner developers in the next few weeks and months, and as the Blue Oval stakes a virtual claim in the infotainment space, the invitations and partnerships continue to roll in. "We were first invited and then adopted into the technology community," says Hall, "We did not just show up to use CES as another show to simply reach consumers; it is a strategic priority to be part of the community and we need to be at these [consumer electronics] shows, not only to conduct traditional marketing and brand building, but keep pace with the technology community to help drive innovation and continuously improve the customer experience." Something the automaker is working on after troubled launch of MyFord Touch.



But for now, Ford stands virtually alone in Europe. But why?

The infotainment realm is finally beginning to keep pace with the world of consumer electronics, but only a few automakers are taking the reins across the Atlantic. The reasons are unclear, but the general apathy towards in-car infotainment systems in Europe speaks to a host of conditions.

While Europe has been at the forefront of the mobile phone boom for well over a decade, the U.S. has historically been more comfortable with new technologies and early adoption when it comes to in-car systems. This assertion was backed up by a few attendees we spoke with at the show who applauded Ford's importation of SYNC's music and safety systems, but failed to understand the usability of more social and app-based features. One attendee asked a question many Americans have been wondering for years: "Why would I want to update my Facebook while in the car?"

But this isn't just down to "Europeans are drivers and Americans are multitaskers." Quite the contrary. In-car mobile phone use is up across the planet, and while drivers in France, Germany and the UK don't use internet-enabled phones behind the wheel as much as their Stateside counterparts (figures are flimsy, but a recent study by State Farm showed that 19 percent of U.S. drivers use the internet while behind the wheel), the fact is people are using their phones while driving, and if an outright ban on such technologies is increasingly unlikely, reducing that temptation or integrating commonly used apps into vehicles for safer input and usability has to become a priority. And not to mention the language issue.

Safety issues aside, the general sense we took away from IFA was a general lack of awareness when it comes to mobile integration and a broader disinterest in anything that didn't address the core in-car infotainment functionality; namely phone calls and music. The former is getting better with each successive generation and the latter is being addressed with deeper integration of music services like Pandora, Mog and eventually, Spotify. That's what many consumers are beginning to demand, but as of now, only a two automakers – Ford and BMW – are heeding the call both here and abroad.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 99 Comments
      bunker537
      • 3 Years Ago
      Can we Americans please get an option on our cars to eliminate the "infotainment" garbage? I'd rather save a little money (and weight) and do without it. While you're at it, how about making everything 10% smaller...
        JasonERF
        • 3 Years Ago
        @bunker537
        thumbs up!
        kevinmauzey
        • 3 Years Ago
        @bunker537
        Yes, most infotainment features are separate packages or options. Even though I'm a tech guy, I'd rather use my smartphone because the infotainment in cars will get outdated fast.
      aatbloke1967
      • 3 Years Ago
      It's interesting to see the comments from Americans here, and equally easy to spot those who have actually spent time in Europe. It's a common misconception of Americans that Europeans don't drive as much. This is often untrue. The ABI studied UK driving conditions and annual mileages a couple of years ago, and found that it varies by vehicle type. A and B-segment cars travelled an average 5-9,000 miles per annum, while D-segment cars travelled an average 8-14,000 miles per annum. C-segment cars travelled the most, at 12-20,000 miles per annum. European commutes are identical in nature to most American commutes, a blend of motorways, back roads and urban grind. I personally found my American commutes in OH and PA to be identical in terms of mileage as those in the UK. However, more Americans take their cars on road trips than Europeans do, who, with a plethora of budget airlines to choose from, prefer to fly. That said, it's fairly common for Europeans - especially Brits, French, Benelux, German, Spanish and Italian people, to take their cars all over western Europe on holiday. For Brits, taking the car over to France for a holiday is very common indeed. The difference in the topic of this thread is essentially down to culture - Europeans don't go for drinking coffee while driving, either. Neither are they interested in dining out for breakfast. The car culture is different - to many Europeans, cars are an accessory which embodies the kind of person you are, rather than a mere appliance. That applys to whether you're an urbanite or someone who traverses motorways all day. This is why the US is so common to traditionally boring cars such as the Corolla and Civic, whereas Europe creates such eccentricities as the Smart Roadster and Aston Martin Cygnet. Europe is also home the vast majority of the greatest GT cars ever produced over the years, and not for the purposes of sitting in them to scoure the internet. Their purpose is to traverse continents at high speed and agility in luxury. Someone rightly said that used cars in Europe are much cheaper than the States, which is very true. A 6-cylinder e39 5-series can these days be picked up for £1K quite easily with nominal mileage. People who buy these are probably more interested in aftermarket ICE. New cars, on the other hand, tend to be more expensive than they are Stateside, but the quality of many vehicles differs between the two continents traditionally differs too. Cars such as the Golf, Mazda 3, and mkIII Focus are quickly changing all that though.
        Albert Ferrer
        • 3 Years Ago
        @aatbloke1967
        This pretty much sums it up nicely. Except for the Aston Martin Cygnet thing. That's just a stupid idea which has produced a silly car.
      Shinkaze
      • 3 Years Ago
      I have a Nissan GT-R with more gadgets and gizmo infotainment options than you can shake a stick at.............and I never use any of it. The INFO from infotainment gets old and looses it's novelty fast.
        BG
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Shinkaze
        Exactly, but the manufacturers made their money when they sold it, so they are happy.
      mylexicon
      • 3 Years Ago
      In the US, the manufacturers have decided that Americans are going to like in-car technology b/c it's a huge market, we all speak the same language, and we all use a well-homogenized system of interstates and state/local roads. Furthermore, there is a widely held belief in the automobile industry that cars are losing relevance with younger generations b/c they lack communications and media technology. Personally, I tend to believe that Americans are skeptical about new, expensive technology bundles; especially since Americans are more gung-ho about reliability than other markets. The feverish development of technology is worrisome as well. Think about how big in-car navigation was in the late-90s and early-00s. Now people just use their phones. Anybody still use a PDA? Who's to say that the expensive system a consumer just purchased will not be irrelevant or insanely annoying (used car purchasers will have to learn to use out-dated technology) just a few years down the future.
      avatar-ds
      • 3 Years Ago
      I dread the thought that cars are going to share the destiny of cell phones and get packed with all the crap that is either never used or designed to distract from enjoying the present moment. Are we going to make cocktails and take photos with cars in the future?
      • 3 Years Ago
      [blocked]
      throwback
      • 3 Years Ago
      The comments here while interesting, are largely irrelevant to the vast majority of car buyers. We as enthusiasts are a small percentage of the car buying public. The average US car buyer does not care about vehicle dynamics, engine output or manual transmissions. They care about comfort, reliability, durability and convenience Culture can explain the differences between Europeans and Americans. We spend more time in our cars and if given the choice would much rather drive than use the train or bus. We also are multitaskers who see no need not to be bale to do the things we want, when we want. We like having plenty of choices. If you don't want your phone connected to your car, don't connect it. I put my phone in airplane mode when I drive and I turn my work BB off.
      Darren McLellan
      • 3 Years Ago
      I consider my self a fairly tech savvy guy but when I get behind the wheel I become all antideluvian. I have an XM ready CD player in my truck, I hardly ever turn it on much less play a CD. I love Google Map/Earth and all but prefer good old paper maps when I am driving. I see all sorts of people driving around with Sat-Nav and cannot even imagine having that big bright object on my dash. If I had the red head in the top picture in the car, that might be enuff entertainment for me.
      Blakkar
      • 3 Years Ago
      When I read the title my first response is, because they already have smart phones and do not feel the need to pay for another one. Second response: to busy enjoying driving.
        AldenBiesen
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Blakkar
        I don't even have a smart phone, just a regular one. Don't get me wrong, I'm a young guy, fairly well off and have always known by way around technology but I don't see the need to be connected at all times. If you need me: call me or drop by my lair. If I don't pick-up or am not at home: tough luck. Leave a
      Basil Exposition
      • 3 Years Ago
      I wonder if I was born European and brought across the Atlantic as a baby?
      jviddy
      • 3 Years Ago
      My experience is that second hand cars are a lot cheaper in europe then they are in the US (as a percentage of the new cost) while new car prices are much higher. Therefore younger tech savvy people are more likely to buy second hand and then either tolerate the in car system or replace it with an aftermarket system. The people who buy new cars don't seem to care that much (although that is changing). When i last looked at buying a new car the advanced nav/entertainment system was an extra £2,000 which gave me a nav system worse than a £100 tom-tom and an entertainment system worse than an iphone. I do however have an interesting story about watching a soccer game on the entertainment system of a Bentley continental GTC at a McDonalds drive through
      Redline
      • 3 Years Ago
      I need ze infotainment while going 250km/h down se Autobahn!
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