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Here's why new car tech is four years out of date

Think you can upgrade your car's hardware? Not anytime soon.

May 6, 2013 05:20 AM ET

Computerworld - 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 the electric Tesla, most car manufacturers don't even allow owners to upgrade their car's hardware as it ages. Some infotainment system upgrades now offered by major manufacturers 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, an analyst at Gartner.

Last March, Ford began mailing out MyFord Touch upgrade packages with software updates to more than 300,000 customers. The packages included a USB flash drive with the updated software, a notification letter, detailed instructions for the 60-minute download, and an updated user guide.

"Navigation-equipped vehicle owners also received an updated SD card with all-new, updated map data. Drivers had the option to go to the dealer to have it installed if they wanted to, but they could also do the upgrade themselves at home," a Ford spokesperson wrote in an email to Computerworld.

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.

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