Blues Traveler

Dec 3, 2009

Drawing a comparison between an Anglo-Saxon king of yesteryear and an industrial advancement like Bluetooth technology may seem a bit like comparing apples to tuna fish. But Harald I of Denmark, or Harald Bluetooth Gormson as he is more universally known, is actually where this modern-day innovation in wireless connectivity received its rather auspicious name. Historically recognized for uniting Denmark, Norway, and Sweden under the rule of one king, it is only fitting that the Bluetooth logo be derived from the Nordic ruins bearing his initials-H and B. It was not long ago, however, that Bluetooth technology was just as obscure to many consumers as the origins of its 10th century namesake.

“Bluetooth technology was pretty foreign about three to four years ago and now it is everywhere,” says Justin Jackson, program manager for Visteon, Van Buren Township, Mich. “Bluetooth has been around for 12 years and the applications continue to grow every year.”

It’s a market with lots of potential for restylers; Bluetooth systems require professional installation, which accessory shops have the tools and expertise to provide. Bluetooth products are certainly not limited to the sound and electronics specialty shops.

It may seem a little out of the realm of “restyling,” but manufacturers say that accessory shops are well positioned to offer sales and installation of Bluetooth systems.

“Most styling shops only think about bolt-on or stick-on accessories because they think that Bluetooth handsfree kits are for the stereo shops,” says Bob Cicerone of Sound Security, a Nokia products installer in Clinton Township, Mich.

Not just for the elite

So who’s a potential Bluetooth customer?

“Anyone who has felt the frustration of trying to drive and grab their mobile phone that’s ringing in their pocket,” says Cicerone. “People want their vehicle to stand out and be different-why not offer them something which is stylish and productive in their everyday [life]?”

Any product that spans demographic lines the way Bluetooth’s appeal does is a valuable product for a restyler to add to his or her product offerings.

In fact, Bluetooth might be the sort of product that appeals more to nontraditional restyling customers, according to Larry Baker, vice president of sales and marketing, AutoIntelligence, Muncie, Ind. He cites recent studies noting that women were even more interested in Bluetooth systems than men.

“Women saw the safety value and convenience factor,” he says.

Acquiring an operable Bluetooth system car was once a costly and complicated endeavor. A few years ago, even a mediocre system required paying a premium price for compatible cellular phone devices and aftermarket installation products.

As popularity grew for this hands- and wire-free technology, so did the suppliers. Even OEMs jumped on the Bluetooth bandwagon and began integrating this innovative technology into their most standard model-line.

“It is just like when you look back at the very first audio system installations for cars,” says Michael Griffin of Roadwire Automotive, Commerce, Calif. “It was kind of sketchy at first, but the manufacturers finally started to get it right. When the OEMs start putting heavy stock into a market that used to be defined by the restylers, it is like they finally woke up and smelled the coffee.”

So if the OEMs are already responding to the need for Bluetooth, then where do the restylers fit in? The answer: upgrades.

“The OEMs are always trying to throw something out there, but don’t get scared by the manufacturer,” says Griffin. “Toyota, for example, offers a Bluetooth system for its model line, but it’s really hard to pair and it doesn’t sound very good. They throw a product out there, but it’s usually not the best because of the pricepoints that the manufacturers have to work with. So there is definitely a market for Bluetooth in the aftermarket segment. Our goal now is to stay ahead of the trending.”

As a first-tier supplier for many of the OEMs-including Ford, GM, and Chrysler-Visteon is one example of a company that is breaking new ground. In May, the company plans to release a fully integrated Navigation Radio System that combines a radio head unit, seven-inch touch-screen navigation, CD/DVD player, iPod command and control, and hands-free phone capability.

“We are still in the middle of the development for this product,” says Terry Prestel, lead electrical engineer for Visteon. “We showed a prototype of this at CES in January, but it is only about 85 percent to 90 percent functionality at the moment.”

Sony also unveiled its new products at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show, including the addition of two new head units with built-in Bluetooth technology.

“We start with the MEX-BT2600, at a retail of about $170; this is our lowest cost ever for integrated BT in a car stereo head unit,” notes Mike Kahn of Sony Mobile Electronics, San Diego.

Bluetooth manufacturers are offering products that increasingly combine multiple functions into one headunit, trimming down the number of gadgets a driver must fit into his or her car’s interior.

Products for every customer

It is possible, however, that this type of all-in-one system may be overkill for some consumers. Many restyling shops should consider the alternatives.

“There are essentially three solutions for hands-free: one of them is not very good the other two are great,” says Michael Hedge of Parrot, Southfield, Mich. “The first solution would be the ear bud, which is not a good solution for anybody. I recently conducted a survey in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut because those three states have had hands-free laws in the books for a couple years. I found that about 40 percent went out and bought an ear bud as a solution and almost 100 percent of that 40 percent said that they were uncomfortable, had terrible audio and they are not really using them anymore.

“Another solution would be a portable or plug-and-play type of device,” Hedge continues. “We make a small device called the MINIKIT that clips to your sunvisor. It has a battery-powered speakerphone with full Bluetooth hands-free capability. It’s great for people that travel a lot and need to take their device from car to car. And the third category would be the installed solution. It is integrated right into your sound system and we recommend those because you get the best audio. The voice on the other line comes in right through your speaker and you can crank up the audio as high as you want-¦it really is the best hands free solution.”

Josh Rohm of Mito Corporation, Elkhart, Ind., agrees with Hedge.

“Many consumers don’t know about what Bluetooth technology has to offer,” he says. “To them, Bluetooth is a free ear bud you got with your new phone…it’s free for a reason. This is where working displays in shops helps. People can connect their phone and make a call then they understand what it can really do for them.”

Making the sale

When it comes to techniques for getting these products off your shelves and into your customers’ cars, Bluetooth nearly sells itself, manufacturers and installers say.

“It’s mostly about the convenience, but the productivity and safety aspects are very good points to companies who have fleets of vehicles or the individual independent contractors. It’s money well spent compared to what would happen if the employee or individual took his or her eyes off the road to reach for the cell phone.”

“In my opinion, there is one and only one thing that truly works,” says Baker. “There are many people who do not know what Bluetooth is. The one thing that makes a difference in selling this product is having a live demonstration of this technology. There is no substitute. Around the country, those who have working displays and do live demos sell the product.”

Good hands-free systems are going to become increasingly important across the country, especially as state laws and legislation go into effect.

“California and Washington states go hands-free on July 1, which creates a wonderful market for all of the restylers on the West Coast,” notes Hedge. “Everyone seems to be aware of the pending law and they’re all looking for hands-free solutions.”

“Restylers have a great opportunity in this market for several different reasons,” says Griffin. “From the car dealership standpoint, it is legislated and there is a need for it; it is already a slam-dunk! Everyone is going to start hearing about people getting tickets for talking on a hand-held device. That will start to fuel an interest in this technology from the consumer standpoint. So as a restyler you just have let people know that you can help and they will come to you.”

Rich future

Bluetooth products have a golden future ahead of them, according to industry professionals. Baker says that Bluetooth applications and uses are going to become very, very hot in the next few years, with integration between transportation, communication and entertainment.

“We will see a growth  curve in this category over the next couple of years,” he says. “You will see with Bluetooth connectivity additional features that are quite fascinating over the next few years. There will be ways to communicate with home servers-and people will start to have home servers-and stream movies and music to their auto from their home collection. Bluetooth can do speech-to-text and text-to-speech. You could have e-mail read to you or compose e-mail as you’re driving down the road, speaking through Blueconnect.”

Bluetooth’s fascinating capabilities have other applications, too. A Jan. 25 news story by Larry Shaughnessy on CNN.com tells of a double amputee who lost his legs in Iraq, and is now using prosthetic legs driven by Bluetooth technology. Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bleill’s motorized prosthetic legs have computer chips that communicate with the artificial joints, allowing the legs to communicate with each other.

“They mimic each other, so for stride length, for amount of force coming up, going uphill, downhill and such, they can vary speed and then to stop them again,” Bleill told CNN from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he’s undergoing rehab. “I will put resistance with my own thigh muscles to slow them down, so I can stop walking, which is always nice.”

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Hands-Free Laws and Legislation

Currently three states (Connecticut, New Jersey and New York), the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have enacted jurisdiction-wide cell phone laws prohibiting driving while talking on handheld cell phones. California and Washington will begin enforcing legislation beginning July 1 and many other states ban cell phone use in specific cities (i.e., Detroit and Chicago). Emergency calls are always exempt from punishment.

Seventeen states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia have specified cell phone driving laws for novice drivers.

In May of 2007, Washington became the first state to ban driving while texting for all drivers and New Jersey followed suit in November.

Several states, such as Utah and New Hampshire, treat cell phone use as a larger distracted driving issue. Crash data is collected in 29 states and the Virgin Islands to determine whether drivers involved in automobile accidents were using a cell phone during the collision.

No state completely bans all types of cell phone us-handheld and hands-free-while driving.