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Disruptive Innovation In Vehicle Electronics

I’ve been involved with CE since 1978 and can’t recall a time when some to many weren’t predicting the demise of the 12-volt aftermarket. Initially that wasn’t logical given the poor state of vehicle OEM. Aftermarket was simply better and people bought it.

Beginning in the early 90s things began to change as OEM improved significantly. Today the quality of 12-volt OEM is quite good, certainly so from the perspective of most new car buyers. Or is it?

The widely reported Consumer Reports Annual Auto Reliability rankings for 2013 were just released, and buried in one story was the following quote:

“One of the key problem areas in Consumer Reports’ survey centers on in-car electronics, including the proliferating suite of audio, navigation, communication, and connected systems in newer cars. Of the 17 problem areas CR asks about, the category including in-car electronics generated more complaints from owners of 2013 models than for any other category.”

Attempting to sell aftermarket 12-volt today is not just a matter of performance and price. At best installation is difficult, sometimes impossible due to the integration of electronics within new cars and trucks. So what, if anything, can be done about consumer dissatisfaction with new vehicle electronics?

There are many aftermarket retailers who could improve a vehicle’s electronics. There are also excellent equipment suppliers with decades of 12-volt invention and manufacturing experience. Indeed that is where most of today’s OEM comes from.

And finally there is the expertise of the vehicle manufacturers themselves, also improved considerably. But with that the case, why does in-car electronics end up being rated the worst among all 17 problem areas in the Consumer Reports survey?

A problem in search of a disruptive innovation solution

In his excellent book “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen talks about what he calls “disruptive innovation”; a term he coined to describe how new products and services can ultimately replace existing ones.

This happens when older business models fail to recognize the need for change, becoming vulnerable as a result of new and better ways. I am convinced that the potential for that to happen in 12-volt electronics is upon us. However the question remains; who will do it?    

Over simplifying, the stakeholders in 12-volt electronics, those who might be the disruptive innovator, include 12-volt equipment manufacturers, retailers, and new vehicle manufacturers. However none of them will as long as they cling to their existing business models. Real change will only come from an entity that integrates the strengths of all three, bridging the gaps that have existed between them since day one.

Will it happen? I don’t know. But I am convinced the opportunity exists and that somewhere deep within the most innovative companies we all could name (think disruptive innovation in book and music publishing and retail, mobile communication, and internet services), others might be seeing the same opportunity.

If that’s you or you’d just like to explore this further, feel free to contact me; I’d be more than happy to exchange thoughts.

William Matthies is the CEO of Coyote Insight, LLC, a planning consultancy specializing in the consumer electronic industry, and the author of “The 7 Keys to Change”.  He can be reached at [email protected] or at 714 726-2901.