By Arjen Bongard

LAS VEGAS ”“ It wasn’t so long ago that the auto industry was struggling to position itself in the era of consumer entertainment. Judging from automakers’ presentations at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) here - and from the barrage of in-car infotainment announcements in recent weeks - things have moved on.

Five years ago, most auto executives considered infotainment peripheral to the core mission of the carmaker: to build a vehicle that transports people safely from A to B in relative comfort and with enough engine power to make the experience enjoyable.

Some top carmaker bosses at the time said better sound systems and improved mobile-phone connectivity merely helped make sitting in a traffic jam less disagreeable. A journalist colleague echoed widely held views that entertainment systems prevented you from enjoying the sound of the engine. And few if any of the carmakers had board members with expertise in electronics, let alone computer hardware or software experience.

The latter hasn’t changed, but just about everything else has.Audi CEO

Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Las Vegas 06./07.01.11

Ford CEO Alan Mulally spoke about an electrified future

Rupert Stadler, in a CES keynote speech, positioned the brand’s e-tron Spyder electric concept sports car as “an information technology pioneer.” Automotive electronics is redefining the car and Audi, in its own words, wants to be "connectivity leader of the digital revolution in the automobile."

Ford CEO Alan Mulally, at the same event, talked of a new “electrified lifestyle” and predicted that electric-vehicle customers are looking for a much different, much more connected kind of car than their combustion-engine-buying predecessors.

And General Motors said in Las Vegas that it is investing 5 million dlrs in Powermat, a pioneer in wireless charging technology. GM hopes Powermat will help eliminate the need for charging cords for personal electronic devices in many of its models from mid 2012.

It’s almost as if, after decades of focus on safety, engine power, torque, handling and design, the industry has found a new marketing message that resonates with a new generation of connected-car buyers. That message is that the car is becoming a mobile extension of the living room.

gm ces 2011

Ford CEO Alan Mulally spoke about an electrified future

New car buyers, most of them in their 20s or 30s, have trouble tearing themselves away from their iPads, smartphones and other mobile social-networking devices. Many younger customers prefer the passenger seat to the driver’s seat, because they can continue to text or otherwise interact with friends and colleagues.

So it’s no surprise that car companies are concentrating on the new connected experience. Just in the last week, traditional marketing messages about safety, fuel efficiency and engine quality were crowded out by news about automotive IT. Audi touted its next-generation infotainment systems, Ford stepped up promotion of SYNC, GM’s OnStar announced that it will be available to non-GM car owners and Hyundai and BMW attempted to position their Blue Link and Mini Connected telematics systems as best in class. Toyota, meanwhile, announced its Entune Multimedia System, which has improved mobile phone connectivity.

So the auto industry is relinquishing its one-dimensional transportation focus in favor of a new approach that better recognizes that cars are a consumer product, albeit a very expensive one.

According to the Wall Street Journal this weekend, GM CEO Daniel Akerson picked up a can of Coke in an internal meeting recently and said: “See this can? It’s a consumer product. GM has to start acting like a consumer driven, not engineering driven company. We sell a consumer product ”“ our can just costs 30,000 dlrs.”

mulally focus electric ces 2011

Ford CEO Alan Mulally spoke about an electrified future

Consumers want their gadgets inside the car and many consider this more important than anything else. Hence, the auto industry is responding.

What remains to be worked out is how automakers accommodate the tens of thousands of consumer-electronics companies that all want their devices used inside the car.

Their makers would like full connectivity and full integration, but the car

industry, citing safety concerns is resisting. As Audi’s Stadler told the CES: you don’t want devices inside the car that draw the driver’s attention away from the act of driving.

Audi ”“ and others ”“ will keep control of in-car infotainment, but they are creating more modular infotainment systems. Audi will shortly have a system that allows for the swapping out of the the main chip whenever an update is required. And in consumer electronics, those updates come much more rapidly than in the car industry.

The modularization move will go some way toward improving the working relationship between the auto industry and the makers of consumer electronics products. And that may mean that, in future, drivers won't have to wait seven years for the next consumer-electronics innovation to show up in their cars.