NEW YORK (TheStreet) Mary T. Barra, Alan Mulally -- and for that matter, every other carmaker CEO -- better do like I did and talk smart cars with Rick Case.
"No matter what happens with smart cars, or in-car navigation, or intelligent driving systems or whatever whiz-bang gadgetry gets plugged into a vehicles, the question will always be, 'What the heck happens to my iPhone?'" said the chief executive for Nite Ize, the Boulder, Colo., product design and peripheral company.
Case was making the, uh, case for the indispensability of smartphones and mobile devices in vehicles while giving me a fascinating, hands-on tour of his latest generation of in-car accessories. His Nite Ize gadgets really do make it remarkably easy to safely and legally retrofit most any iPhone, Android or other portable device into any car or truck.
Be warned. It's easy to dismiss Case's low-cost Steelie Car Mount Kit ($35) as just another cheap aftermarket smart-device gizmo. But after testing this thing for a month or two, this kit -- along with dozens of other aftermarket device mounts -- absolutely enables near frictionless retrofitting of powerful mobile device navigation, entertainment and social media into any vehicle. In fact, these mounts are so low-cost and innovative that they often outperform(!) pricey smart car systems installed by carmakers.
"We make a lot of accessories for a lot of primary products. And what you learn is, if it is not accessibly convenient, I don't care what you paid for that product -- what you bought is not that useful to you," he said. "What I realized when we got into this product was the car is just another place where a consumer is trying to solve the problem of conveniently accessing a product -- that the product's a smartphone is almost beside the point."
The un-after-car market
What's sobering for smart- and connected-car investors is that, even though Case sells aggressively into cars, he's not actually in the automotive industry. This entrepreneur started his firm way back in 1989 as mostly an outdoor product company, going door to door selling flashlight headbands to area specialty retailers.
His line exploded over the years to include more than 500 products including flashlights, cable ties and other product-enhancement gadgets, and viewed in that context the Steelie is really nothing more than a clever extension of this product-enabling ethic. It uses a magnetic socket stuck to the back of a phone that slots into a dashboard mount.
And it makes it devilishly easy to control most any mobile device in most any vehicle.
Once I started using this tool, Case's larger point became powerfully clear: Low-cost mounts blur the line between in-car technology and general consumer electronics. "I love getting into my truck and seeing all those systems," he said. "I am a major gadget head." But Case points out that these in-car nav, entertainment and vehicle management apps often demand users learn how to manage complex software that differs from the smartphone experience they already know
"I believe the point is to have something that works throughout the customer's day," he said. "The iron rule is the customer really, really, really does not want to learn anything new."
And almost no research is required to learn that Nite Ize is not the only mount maker betting that in-car intelligence is better served by generic portable devices retrofits. For just $20, the Koomus Dashboard K2 mounts on any car -- and, at least to my eye, can do so in a safer position for the driver compared with pricey in-car navigation systems. I also like how the Kenu Airframe, at $25, mounts to any heating vent in a car dashboard, offering the terrific option of putting a portable device on the left side of the steering column, near the driver's door, as opposed to right side, in the already overcrowded central console.
Smartphone makers aim at smart car
As Lauren Fix, an independent car systems analyst in Lancaster, N.Y., explained, there is a growing tension between car manufacturer-installed connected auto systems and the mobile tools coming from major mobile makers such as Apple, Samsung and Motorola.
"The pace of development of in-car based apps that work well in a properly mounted cellphone is growing," she said. "Though I still see most drivers preferring true in-car systems, the race is most definitely on -- and smart-car makers are going to have to compete with smartphone makers."
Sure enough. though General Motors has bet heavily on a iPhone-Siri integration with its new Chevy Equinox crossover, Apple recently announced a CarPlay in-car app that works seamlessly on the iPhone -- and makes much of the current GM/Siri product obsolete. And Google recently upgraded its Maps software to make it more auto friendly, again essentially competing with in-car navigation systems pre-installed by carmakers
Investors better get right with the fact that carmakers no longer compete with each other to bring smartness to the American road. They now compete with large and aggressive consumer electronics companies, many of whom operate at much thinner margins.
"The car is just another environment that users find themselves in," Case said. "It's cool, there are a lot unique challenges about the car. But there is nothing fundamentally different about it from clothing or bikes. Or your desktop. It's just part of that continuum of moving around."