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Smartphone link most important feature for U.S. car buyers, industry figure says

U.S. car buyers are more concerned with how well their smartphone syncs in a new vehicle than any other luxury feature, a senior industry figure says.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

When it comes to buying cars, U.S. consumers care less about size and price and more about whether they can sync their smartphones, a senior industry figure has warned.

Speaking before the New York auto show, which focuses heavily on luxury cars, Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.'s executive vice-president for its Lincoln luxury brand, delivered a warning for car makers about rapid changes in U.S. car-buying and how they would affect consumer behaviour.

Car makers could struggle to persuade customers to switch brands because of the difficulty of making mobile devices work with different manufacturers' technology, he said.

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"What if some day a customer doesn't change brands because of how hard it is to transfer their data?" Mr. Farley asked.

As well as highlighting changing attitudes toward mobile devices, Mr. Farley said consumers no longer necessarily equate either a vehicle's price or its size – both once key indicators for luxury car buyers – with its quality. Customers expected some full-specification luxury vehicles to cost less than $60,000, he said.

The centrepiece of his speech was a warning about the growing importance to car buyers of mobile technology and the need to make different manufacturers' technology more similar, rather than building competing information systems.

To stress his point, Mr. Farley announced Ford was offering a total of $50,000 in prizes to developers of mobile phone apps that helped customers to track the fuel economy of their vehicles – a key concern as U.S. fuel prices remain at historically high levels. He was also joined by executives from Facebook Inc., the social networking site, and Google Inc., the Internet search service.

Mr. Farley made his remark about the potential impact of technological differences after Doug Frisbie, Facebook's global head of automotive, compared car makers' current approach to that of mobile phone handset makers when data services started to develop.

"They're all trying to build their own proprietary systems," Mr. Frisbie said. There needs to be far greater commonality between manufacturers, he added.

Ed Welburn, vice-president of global design for General Motors Co., the U.S.'s biggest car maker, said afterward that he doubted the problem was as serious as Mr. Farley had suggested, because different devices were able to communicate successfully with different cars.

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However, Mr. Farley insisted after his address that the motor industry had not evolved fast enough in terms of how cars interact with mobile devices.

"Automotive companies have not necessarily been the most credible voice for technology," he said. "That's why it's good to have Facebook and Google saying things that I'm not necessarily credible saying."

He also said that the growing numbers of Hispanic consumers and women buying cars would change the industry.

Hispanics are increasingly affluent but are not settled on any one luxury car brand, Mr. Farley said.

Women account for a majority of car-purchasing decisions in the U.S., he said, and are more willing than men to pay extra for practical improvements such as better safety.

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