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Mitsu Electric teams with tech heavyweights on infotainment

Mitsubishi Electric's display in a Chrysler Town & Country minivan shows a menu of options, top, and a vehicle navigation screen. Chrysler Group is Mitsubishi Electric's biggest automaker customer for North American navigation and audio systems.

Mitsubishi Electric Automotive America Inc. is partnering up to stay competitive in the infotainment market.

Mitsubishi Electric takes pride in its vertically integrated production process. The company has few suppliers and instead buys raw materials to build most of its own products.

This works well for powertrain, chassis and body parts. But Mark Rakoski, a sales and engineering director at Mitsubishi Electric, said the supplier is finding it harder to stay competitive with what consumers already have on their smartphones and other mobile devices.

"More and more, we find we need partners," he said. "Mitsubishi certainly has abilities to manufacture a lot of our components, but there are those where it's not really practical. Microprocessors are a good example."

Tech partnerships

Mitsubishi Electric partners with software companies such as Microsoft Corp. to use their sophisticated operating systems.

"We want to make infotainment systems that operate like personal computers," Rakoski said.

Despite the growing need to use other companies' technologies, Mitsubishi Electric builds its own liquid crystal display screens and has developed its own navigation system.

"In some cases we use our in-house navigation system, but we also work with Garmin," Rakoski said. "It is largely customer-based. In today's environment, the third-party solution is less than half [of our products]. This can change, however, based on the year and the customer's requirements."

The supplier knows how important infotainment systems are to consumers. Rakoski said the supplier wants to be a leader in the audio, navigation and communication sector.

"It's something that [automakers] have always looked at," he said. "Consumers can make their buying choice based on these systems."

Mitsubishi Electric's biggest automaker customer for North American navigation and audio systems is Chrysler Group.

In June, Mitsubishi Electric rolled out its information and entertainment audio-video bridging system. The supplier hopes that the system, dubbed FLEXConnect, will be in 2018 vehicles, but has not yet signed any agreements with automakers.

It includes 10-inch, 720-pixel screens for the front and rear passengers with a tablet remote-control system for the front passenger. The front passenger can use the tablet to control content on the rear screens and even monitor rear passengers via cameras embedded below the rear-passenger screens.

FLEXConnect is linked to the vehicle's Ethernet and supports Wi-Fi connectivity for multiple devices. Screens mounted on the back of the driver and front passenger seats offer an array of rear-seat entertainment including movie-viewing on a Blu-ray player and video streaming via Apple TV. Passengers can share media from screen to screen, such as videos, games and photos.

Mitsubishi Electric partnered with big names such as Apple, Google and Garmin to develop FLEXConnect.

'Those days are gone'

"Maybe different from a few years ago -- back then it was possible that we could make a system by ourselves and we could sell it, but those days are gone," Doug Ray, a director of audio, video and communications at Mitsubishi Electric, told reporters at the FLEXConnect product unveiling in June.

"We need help and support from a number of partners. Mitsubishi is happily engaged with these [partners] to create a successful system."

Mitsubishi supplies in two major areas: navigation and audio along with powertrain, body and chassis. Navigation and audio accounts for about 40 percent of sales in the United States, while powertrain, body and chassis account for the other 60 percent.

The supplier ranks No. 100 on the Automotive News list of the top 100 suppliers to North America, selling an estimated $438 million in parts to automakers in 2013.

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