Gadget envy sees drivers trade in cars like iPhones

Alexandra Mondalek
Bloomberg News

Mike Fine was perfectly happy with his 2011 Nissan Xterra. Then he got a look at his son’s ride.

The 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee was packed with technology: a touchscreen loaded with apps, Bluetooth, all-wheel drive and push-button start. The Nissan had none of those. Fine did what any self-respecting father would do: He ditched the four-year-old SUV for his own Grand Cherokee.

“Compared to the Xterra, this is a comfortable space shuttle,” said Fine, who lives in Hingham, Mass.

Upgrade envy has helped Apple Inc. sell millions of pricey iPhones. Now, it’s the auto industry’s turn, thanks to a raft of new technologies that make cars safer and easier to drive. Must-have features like parking assist and wireless Web access have helped automakers recover from the 2009 bust and charge record prices for their vehicles.

The new gadgetry and falling oil prices are spurring demand. This year, automakers are expected to sell 16.9 million vehicles, for a sixth consecutive year of growth.

And in a potentially dramatic shift, many drivers are trading in their cars more often to get the latest gear. The average length of an auto lease fell to about 36 months last year, according to That’s the shortest term Edmunds has recorded. In some months, leases shrank to less than three years, not much more than the smartphone replacement cycle.

“Consumers want a seamless experience in and out of the vehicle,” said Brian May, who runs Accenture’s connected vehicle business service in North America. “Things they experience on an iPhone or Android are the things they want to experience in a car.”

For years, struggling Detroit automakers couldn’t afford to bring promising advances to the showroom. Then came the bailout of General Motors Co. and Chrysler, and soon a newly profitable industry was stuffing vehicles with transformative gadgetry.

It all happened so fast, many 10-year-old cars seem like time capsules. Infotainment and safety features that are commonplace now were virtually nonexistent as recently as 2005. Less than a third of 2005 models had anti-skid technology and less than 12 percent had rear-view cameras, features found in almost all 2015 models, according to IHS data.

“We basically skipped a generation of technology, and that’s what we’re seeing come out now,” said Kevin Tynan, a senior auto analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “Your five-year-old car feels like it’s 10 or 12 years old.”

Automakers are falling over themselves to hawk the latest gizmos. Volvo ads feature drivers using Pandora, Yelp! and other apps on the center screen to find exotic destinations and places to eat. A Nissan Rogue uses blind-spot monitors and other cameras to navigate a stampede of bulls.

In one commercial, a convoy of five Hyundai 2015 Genesis sedans use adaptive cruise control and lane-guiding features to keep the cars in a line while each driver in turn jumps out of the moving car onto a flatbed truck. The lead driver then takes his hands off the wheel and puts on a blindfold and all the cars stop safely when the flatbed brakes in front of the line.

Automakers that push out new technology the fastest will gain an edge, said Karl Brauer, senior director of insights and analysis for Kelley Blue Book. He says car purchasing is becoming much like shopping for a new smartphone.

“You don’t really need a new iPhone,” he said. “But you want one.”