The Breakdown

Explaining Southern California's economy

LA Auto Show: It's a rolling world of consumer electronics!

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The Los Angeles Auto Show has in recent years defined itself as the "green" car show. California has the largest auto market in the U.S., as well as the most environmentally preoccupied. But the most dramatic auto debuts during car show season, running through next spring, are traditionally reserved for Detroit, the auto industry's spiritual home. So L.A. has had to kick off car show season with its own  attention-getting twist.

The L.A. Auto Show focuses on the dream machines, the future of transportation and, over the past decade, on electric cars, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, alternative fuel vehicles — in short, things with wheels that aren't total slaves to gas. But this year, it's different.

The new story is technology. Specifically, how cars will soon become platforms for various consumer electronics, mainly smartphones. In the past, automakers have preferred to design and build their own in-vehicle infotainment systems or partner with tech companies. The most prominent of these has been Ford and its relationship with Microsoft;  Ford's CEO, Alan Mullaly, has also made regular pilgrimages to the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. General Motors has had a loose association with Google (and Google itself is the the auto game, with its driverless car). No one has yet broken through with Apple.

And that's where this year's L.A. Auto Show and its underlying theme comes in. The automakers have figured out that their product cycle — new vehicles every 3-4 years — and the product cycle of the consumer electronics industry — new gadgets every six months — don't match up well. At all. The solution is to make cars serve smartphones, rather than the other way around.

Toyota Motor Sales USA President and CEO Jim Lentz zeroed in on the challenge in his keynote address to the media Wednesday, the first of two media-preview days before the show opens to the public Friday.

"We want the screens in our vehicles to connect with devices," Lentz said. He emphasized that this is what younger consumers want — in fact, he noted that a bad economy has changed the matrix of desire for the generation under 30. To them, having their smartphones work, no matter where they are, is more important than buying their first car. Lentz expects them to lose their disdain for car ownership as they mature. But he doesn't expect their always-connected gadget obsession to go away.

But what's worrisome about this? Distracted driving, obviously. Lentz highlighted this problem in his speech and stressed the role that automakers have in being not just, as he put it, the "architects of the future," but also the stewards of safety. 

This is an issue that's been talked about a lot in the auto industry. Driving while texting or fiddling with apps or even resetting a group of GPS directions isn't really the auto industry's problem. But carmakers know that drivers, especially young drivers, aren't going to switch off their iPhones while driving. So, their response is to create in-car systems that allow for safe, seamless integration. Toyota's system is called Entune and it is far from alone. Some automakers are planning to go so far as to replace traditional instruments and infotainment features with smartphone and tablet interfaces. They figure it's pointless for them to struggle with their much longer product cycles.

So far, that's the main theme I'm seeing at the 2012 L.A. Auto Show.

After years of observing the automakers going green for Southern California, it seems a bit of the thrill has gone off the electric-car revolution, and plenty of carmakers are now producing small, fuel-efficient gas-powered cars that are as frugal on the MPGs as gas-electric hybrids. The story needed to shift. And so it has.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter. And ask Matt questions at Quora.

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