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Connecting the Dots

The editor opens up about his time in the car audio industry and how that experience shaped his thoughts about the internet, telematics, and the connected car.

August 19, 2017

So I’ve been holding out on you. See, I’m a car audio nut — but not by choice. My first magazine gig was with Mobile Electronic, a magazine for owners of car audio specialty shops. And like I’ve done in F&I, I really dived in. But instead of suits and Montblanc pens, it was T-shirts and power screwdrivers.

And there were some characters, like installer Dave “Fishman” Rivera. He was famous for adding fish tanks to every one of his legendary installations. Sometimes the cars were more famous than the installer. There was the “Terminator,” a 1960 Cadillac hearse that packed 23 speakers, seven amplifiers and literally blew away its competitors with 4,280 watts of power.

Then there was my first experience with a dB drag racer, which are gutted-out cars with walls of speakers and amps. I guess I didn’t fully comprehend how loud that sucker was when I poked my head in for a split second to catch a photo of the pounding subwoofers. Just imagine standing 50 feet away from a military jet taking off. Well, this particular vehicle was louder than that.

And I experienced some amazing sound systems, installations where you could close your eyes and literally hear where each musician was standing while listening to a live recording.

Those were some good times and a lot of late nights, especially whenever the Consumer Electronics Show rolled into Las Vegas. I attended six straight shows, saw performances by legends like Santana, and even hung out in the VIP room with celebrities like DJ Quik, Warren G, Nikki Sixx and his then-wife, Donna D’Errico.

I also witnessed the power of the internet during my stint in car audio. See, the industry’s true heyday was the 1980s, when a shop’s installation prowess was the main driver of sales. But then websites like Crutchfield came along and everything changed. But the internet was only partly to blame.

I joined Mobile Electronic in late 1999, about a year after Alpine Electronics introduced one of the first aftermarket telematics systems sold by car audio retailers. It was called Mobile MayDay, and it retailed for about $1,000 installed. There was also the $19.95 monthly service fee for concierge services, roadside assistance, and more. It was innovative, but I wasn’t surprised when the system was discontinued around 2001 due to poor sales.

I bring all this up for two reasons: First, the connected car is the focus of this month’s cover story. Second, I was never truly a believer in such systems as an aftermarket solution, and I made that known when I visited with Spireon and CalAmp at NADA 2017 to see their new connected-car platforms.

And I’m not the only one.

See, I reached out to an old editor buddy of mine who also covered the aftermarket. His name is Greg Basich, and he now works for Strategy Analytics’ global automotive practice. And as you’ll read on Page 16, he shares my skepticism about such systems. But maybe we’re wrong. Mobile MayDay was way ahead of its time. Mobile apps, which are a major driver of Spireon and CalAmp’s connected-car services, also didn’t exist back then.

There’s one more difference: These systems are designed to be sold by dealers. See, back then, I just didn’t believe car audio shops were the right outlet for these systems, mainly because of that industry’s core customer demographic, which is 16 to 24 years of age.

Still, dealers will need to figure out how much customers are willing to pay for connected-car services, and there’s plenty to like from a consumer standpoint. There are dealer-geared benefits as well, including lot-management capabilities and a two-way connection between your customer’s car and your service department. Just imagine the marketing potential of the latter.

Basich agreed the dealer features were compelling — in fact, enough for him to suggest that dealers offer that connection to customers’ vehicles for free. I knew there was no way that’d fly with dealers — that’s until I remembered several F&I product providers have introduced mobile apps that offer that same OBD-II connection.

EasyCare’s Custom Dealer App is one such example. It offers DMS integration so a dealership’s entire inventory is accessible through the app. Maximus Auto Group’s MyCar Mobile app allows users to start a claim, contact the dealer, and call for roadside assistance. And both apps store F&I product and deal documentation.

By the way, the other reason specialty car shops have all but disappeared is what’s behind that OBD-II port, which is a databus that interconnects components inside a vehicle. Without getting technical, these communications networks made it less about sound quality, which is what car audio shops lived on, and more about connectivity and integration.

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