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Growth yes, profits no

In theory, global demand for electronic accessories such as satellite navigation systems, telematics, dedicated car telephone systems, stolen vehicle tracking systems and speed camera location devices will be worth about £1.1bn this year and rise to £5.5bn by the year 2005. Alternative estimates suggest the telematics market alone will grow from around £690m about £29bn in 2010. The problem is that these global estimates are from US-based research companies. Other than the fact the market is growing fast, no one knows what is happening in the UK. Only one thing is clear: there are few opportunities for dealers to profit from the growth. The market is currently led by manufacturers that want to differentiate their products by appearing to be at the cutting edge of technology. Premium brands such as Audi, BMW, Jaguar, and Mercedes already fit many sophisticated electronic gadgets such as totally hands-free mobile phone systems with steering wheel controls. But mass manufacturers will drive really explosive market growth. Fiat is the first to offer high-tech services with widespread consumer appeal. The telematics system on the Alfa Romeo 147 allows communication with a central call centre in southern Italy, staffed by people who speak a total of 14 languages and can offer route guidance, traffic alerts and advice on hotels, restaurants and other topics. The technology will be offered in the Fiat Stilo in the spring and then extended to other Fiat/Alfa models. A similar system is known to be under development by Ford, and other manufacturers are rushing to catch up. Systems like these combine – or will combine – telecoms services, GPS (global positioning) and telematics. Accident and breakdown services, stolen vehicle tracking and company fleet vehicle location checks are all obvious benefits. A fleet manager could also check on the mileage of a vehicle and send a message to the driver telling him it was due for a service. Manufacturers are fitting all these systems, or variants of them, as original equipment. This begs the question whether there is a huge demand for aftermarket fitting in prestige used vehicles. Telematics expert Denis Foy, of Tele-inc, said: “This is an area where there are all sorts of predictions, but no source of accurate information. The US market will obviously have been many times the size of the UK's. The products are becoming much more sophisticated and that tends to make me think original equipment fitting will take the lion's share.” Specialist fitters are busy installing navigation and tracking systems by Blaupunkt, VDO, Alpine and Clarion, but the market is largely restricted to fleet users, ambulance and fire services and some senior executives' company cars. Trafficmaster is one of the few companies in the sector that meet the needs of franchised dealers. Trafficmaster is the UK's market leader in traffic information systems and vehicle tracking and offers a huge variety of goods and services. These include the Oracle systems fitted by Vauxhall, Citroen and some BMWs, together with internet services run with the RAC and Orange mobile phone network, and partner services for traffic information with all the major mobile phone companies. Its RAC Trackstar product is Britain's best selling GPS-based vehicle tracking system and is dealer fitted. Retailing at £619-879 (and now available in a new finance package so that the cost is spread over three years), it offers dealers a substantial profit opportunity. The device features an “electronic handshake” activated by the driver with a special key fob, and there is a further option of emergency and breakdown services that have the ability to provide exact vehicle location. For these a covert microphone and speaker must be fitted. Paul Skerritt, of audio and security experts Ian Bannings in Guildford, Surrey, thinks aftersales of the products have probably reached a plateau. He sees healthy demand for Snooper radar detector devices and old favourites such as Sigma alarms and has fitted a considerable number of Alpine navigation systems. But the growth of factory-fitted systems of all kinds will slow demand in the aftermarket where sales are affected by the complexity of systems. “When we started we were fitting stereos to Mk 1 Escorts,” said Mr Bannings, “and electronically things were a doddle. Now the systems and the manufacturers' electronics already within the car are so complex that to do what we do is often extremely difficult. Fifty per cent of our business is from franchised dealers who find it too complicated to do the work themselves.”

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