FRANKFURT -- Eager to cut costs and curb the potential for breakdowns, European carmakers are growing increasingly skeptical of packing their products with the latest high-tech gadgets to emerge from engineering labs.
When, for instance, General Motors Europe executives met recently to review 20 potential systems to aid drivers, such as lane departure warnings or eyelid monitors to detect drowsiness, their enthusiasm remained firmly in check.
"The interesting question was not when we would introduce all 20. The interesting question is which of them will we introduce at all, and when, and how will we sell it," GM Europe President Carl-Peter Forster told a conference last week.
"More and more from our point of view we again have to think about the customer who will ultimately judge whether an innovation has a benefit and has a value to it."
Bosch Chief Executive Franz Fehrenbach, who heads the world's biggest automotive supplier, said the era was over when cars would feature all the bells and whistles that modern electronics and software could conceivably allow.
Carmakers such as Volkswagen have often been criticised for being too infatuated with packing their models full of pricey gizmos that buyers not only fail to appreciate but are unwilling to pay for.
"We all have to ask ourselves if there is a customer benefit. And if there is not a customer benefit we should not put complexity into the car," he said at the Automotive News Europe Congress in Barcelona last week.
Their caution reflects the dilemma car executives face in offering the kinds of snazzy new features that can wow consumers, without venturing onto thin technological ice that leads to breakdowns and in the end alienates customers.
DAZED AND CONFUSED
"Please don't get me wrong," Forster said. "I am not technology averse. I am an engineer myself, but I think we really need to think hard about what adds customer value."
GM's new Opel Astra model, for instance, got just three major innovations -- for its suspension, forward lighting and design -- that Forster said customers could see and understand.
Auto industry insiders acknowledge that cars' complexity -- especially in electronics that now account for about 70 percent of breakdowns -- often got ahead of manufacturers' ability to support their products and buyers' grasp of how they work.
The head of one European tuning company recalled recently one customer whose eyes glazed over during the long explanation of his new car's features.
The proud owner drove the car home to show it off to his wife -- only to find he could not figure out how to get it into reverse and back out of the driveway.
Sometimes cars' features are so advanced that bewildered consumers see them as problems even when they are not.
One premium carmaker, for instance, withdrew an advanced sunroof that automatically adjusted its opening to cut wind noise as the car sped up. But customers saw the roof only partially open and thought it was broken.
In any event, cutting-edge technology will remain an inherent part of current and future cars. Sensors and controls that monitor engine performance will play a crucial role in boosting fuel efficiency and cutting emissions, for example.
Forster said electronics could account for 35 percent of the cost of making a car by 2010, up from 22 percent now, and he saw the amount of software in cars doubling every three years.
The trick will be ensuring the components are absolutely dependable and robust before they go onto the market.