NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Sure, drivers may soon find themselves behind the wheel of smarter Chevys, Fords, Nissans and Audis. But Colin Ehrhardt is pretty darn sure those car companies won't be the only ones making smarter cars.
"Five years ago, I never thought we'd be building smartphones, tablet adaptors and sophisticated electronics into single-unit faceplates that fit over the entire center console of a vehicle," said the director of research and technical services for Metra Electronics, the Holly Hill, Fla., aftermarket automotive electronics and audio company. "But now we are so dialed into what the customer wants that we make a good living doing work like that every day."
Ehrhardt was kindly giving me a tour of the latest aftermarket smart car products he's helped design: Entire replacement consoles for the clumsy control units on late-model Camaros. Or smaller retro kits that upgrade, say, my '89 Honda Civic for touch-screen control and new-age, smartphone-like features.
Metra and companies like it, such as Oxnard, Calif.-based Scosche Industries, are part of a growing group of surprisingly robust car electronics and systems makers that are not actually car makers. Rather, these aftermarket smart part producers, with roots in car electronics and security systems, have become global experts in retrofitting not only radios and GPS systems into vehicles; but also designing and manufacturing end-to-end integrated intelligent vehicle technologies such as collision avoidance systems, complex in-vehicle computers and even apps and software.
Ehrhardt declined to tell me his sales, but I believe him when his says his firm employs more than 400 in several U.S. production facilities. Even a brief browse through the smart aftermarket parts market shows the beefiness of Metra's market. Take Scosche's brand-new replacement console for later model F-150 pickups. This easy-to-install upgrade costs only $450, yet replaces many of the functions of the $2,300(!) premium option package offered directly from Ford. Scosche would not comment on sales, but go look at its website and you should see the basically new part out of stock.
"The line between the new car and the aftermarket car is blurring," is how Ehrhardt explained it.
All of which implies that investors better find their seat belts. The exact same smart vehicle technologies that mainline automakers and technology giants such as Google, Microsoft, Pandora and others have been hyping relentlessly as the future of cars now face a brutal, low-cost competitor: the decentralized, outsourced, digitally enabled automotive supply chain.
In other words, the business of smart cars competes with itself.