Smartphone Navigation Apps Cutting into Automakers’ Bottom Lines

General Motors Company is taking a new approach to onboard navigation, and it might best be summed up by the old adage, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” The chief technology officer of GM’s Onstar service, Tim Nixon, has announced a new $50 iPhone app that can be played on the touchscreen of the automaker’s economy-priced Chevrolet Spark.

Nixon, who has devoted years of his life developing elaborate, and costly, embedded dashboard navigation systems for GM vehicles, says, “The game has changed and the bar has been raised by these always-connected devices that bring fresh information into the car.”

More and more consumers are turning low-cost and free smartphone apps to get them from point A to point B, and automakers are feeling it in their bottom lines.  Embedded navigation systems can cost from $500 to over $2,000.

One of the most popular smartphone navigation apps is Waze, which has a customer base of around 48 million users.  Waze’s vice president of platform and partnerships Di-Ann Elsnor says, “If you have a choice between paying a lot of money on an expensive in-car nav system or a free app on your iPhone, which are you going to choose?” Applications like Waze, she says, are “a considerable threat” to automakers, and it’s not just automakers who are feeling the pressure.  Garmin and TomTom have also begun offering their mapping services via smartphone apps.

According to auto industry consulting firm IHS Automotive, installations of onboard navigation systems is expected to reach 32.7 million worldwide by 2019. IHS analyst Mark Boyadjis says, “The nav function has become the Internet browser of infotainment systems.”

The problem with most embedded navigation systems is that they depend on manual updates which quickly become outdated. Smartphone apps automatically get real-time, updated data via the Internet.

Automakers have also used their proprietary, embedded navigation systems to up-sell consumers on other upgrades by bundling them with options like sun roofs, leather seating and sound systems.  TeleNav senior director of automotive business development Niall Berkery says the practice has been “a very lucrative, profitable option for carmakers.” He says, “Carmakers push those kinds of packages with navigation because it’s a higher margin package for them.”

So, will smartphones completely replace costly, embedded navigation systems?  Ford Motor Company’s consumer tech marketing manager Michelle Moody says the solution isn’t an either/or proposition. She expects to see greater integration of emerging smartphone and traditional automotive technologies and says, “Together, they might be a perfect solution.”

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