Blues Traveler

With the emergence of new, hands-free laws and legislation sweeping the nation, Bluetooth technology is likely to become a necessity for the roaming RV community.

“Having Bluetooth capabilities in your vehicle is a lot like having windshield wipers,” says Michael Hedge of Parrot, a mobile computing/communications company headquartered in Austin, Texas. “You don’t even realize that you need it until a situation arises where you really couldn’t drive without it.”

This statement is becoming more relevant as the hands-free laws continue to change, especially for those in the RV industry. Plus, fumbling around with a cellular phone is probably the last thing that drivers should be doing as their 20,000-pound vehicle barges down the interstate at 60 mph.

“It is really something that everyone should have in every vehicle that they own – RV and passenger car alike,” says Hedge. “The only safe alternative is simply to not a have a phone in the car. And everyone knows that’s not going to happen.”

It is obvious that Bluetooth technology has gained a lot of recognition over the past few years. In fact, nearly every mid-level and luxury vehicle on the showroom floor now offers a Bluetooth option or technology package with the purchase. “A lot of RVs are using OEM stocks,” notes Hedge. “So if they don’t already come with Bluetooth, they are going to very soon.” However, there is currently a big market for older RVs, because Bluetooth is still a relatively new phenomenon.

“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 businesses capable of doing installations; Bluetooth systems require professional installation, which shops have the tools and expertise to provide. Bluetooth products are certainly not limited to the sound and electronics specialty shops.

It may seem out of the realm of RV dealerships and shops, but manufacturers say that accessory shops are well positioned to offer sales and installation of Bluetooth systems – even in RVs.

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

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 an installer to add to his or her product offerings.

In fact, Bluetooth might be the sort of product that appeals to nontraditional restyling customers, according to Larry Baker, vice president of sales and marketing, for Muncie, Ind.-based AutoIntelligence. 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 for a vehicle 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 in Los Angeles. “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 installers 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 their 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 a good 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, 7-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 (the Consumer Electronics Show) in January, but it is only about 85 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 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.

It is possible, however, that this type of all-in-one system may be overkill for some consumers. Many installers 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 Hedge. “The first solution would be the earbud, 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. And I found that about 40 percent went out and bought an earbud 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. We make a small device called the MINIKIT ($79) 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 ($129-$299 plus installation). 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 Corp., Elkhart, Ind., says consumers recognize the value of the hands-free technology once they’ve seen it for themselves.

“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 car really do for them.

AutoIntelligence’s Baker agrees with that assessment.

“In my opinion, there is one and only one thing that truly works. There are many people who do not know what Bluetooth is. The only thing that makes a difference in selling this product is having live demonstration of this technology. There is not substitute,” he says. “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 State go hands-free on July 1, 2008, which creates a wonderful market for all of the (installers) on the West Coast,” notes Hedge. “Everyone seems to be aware of the pending law and they’re all looking for hands-free solutions.”

These laws become increasingly important to the RV owner who travels from state to state. Incorporating a Bluetooth system is commonsensical for those that do not want to worry about the change in legislation every time that they cross the state line.

“(Installers) have a great opportunity in this market for several different reasons,” says Griffin, of Roadwire Automotive. “They really don’t have to do much except sit back and advertise that they’ve got it, so it’s a great profit center.

“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 an (installer) you just have let people know that you can help and they will come to you.”

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. It will do speech-to-text and text-to-speech, or you could have it read e-mail to you or compose e-mail as you’re driving down the road, speaking through Blueconnect. 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 is far more than a hands-free system for cell-phones, it also happens to be the perfect way to keep the kids quiet during those lengthy cross-country adventures.

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 (such as Detroit and Chicago). Emergency calls are always exempt of punishment.

Additionally, 17 states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia) have specified cell phone driving laws for novice drivers.

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

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

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.

– Paul Lawrence Meyers