(Bloomberg) -- To stay competitive in the U.S. truck market, outdoing rivals on torque and towing capacity with brute engines under the hood isn’t enough anymore. Winning over truck owners means your dashboard display screens have got to be big, too.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV proved this with its redesigned Ram 1500 pickup, which features an Apple iPad-inspired 12-inch touch screen in the center console. The big display has helped vault the longtime laggard truck line into second place, surpassing General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Silverado and seizing a 23% share of the fiercely competitive large truck segment in the first quarter, according to Edmunds.
Automakers are “really targeting the interior of the vehicle to try to differentiate themselves,” said Kyle Davis, an analyst at IHS Markit. “Ram was early to the market regarding trucks for this kind of display, but we do expect others to catch up rather quickly.”
Traditional truck marketing usually revolves around playing up a vehicle’s brawny masculinity, not elegant touch screens -- a reflection of the mostly male buyer base that wants to haul trailers or construction materials.
But as Americans ditch passenger cars in droves, trucks are going more mainstream, doubling as family haulers on top of their work duties and drawing more female buyers along the way. Automakers have also gone upscale, nudging pickup prices to records with luxurious legroom, top grain leather and all the technology and connectivity of a premium sedan in their highest-trim trucks.
Fiat Chrysler, which has struggled with quality issues for years with many of its U.S. models, ranks in the top five with its infotainment system, and in the top three for its seamless integration with smartphones, according to Consumer Reports.
“They just about hit a grand slam on designing the interior of this new truck, and that interior is definitely the benchmark in the industry right now,” said Sung Moon, vice president of business development at Detroit Manufacturing Systems, a supplier that builds the instrument panel for Ford Motor Co.’s best-selling F-150.
Jim Morrison, head of the Ram division in North America, said the brand wasn’t trying to take after Tesla Inc. or its trademark 17-inch console screens. Fiat Chrysler’s designers for the Ram 1500 just wanted something big enough to accommodate all the tasks people handle in their trucks -- navigating routes, listening to music, talking on the phone, monitoring oil pressure and engine temperature -- all without leading to drivers fiddling too much with controls while behind the wheel.
“It was just really a natural evolution that started with entertainment, because people spend so much time in their trucks,” Morrison said. “We’re seeing a lot of people from what traditionally were car segments” cross over into pickups, he said.
This year, 60% of vehicles produced worldwide have a touch-screen dashboard, up from 32% in 2014, according to IHS Markit.
Ford, whose F-Series pickup line has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for decades, still has a comfortable lead this year, despite Fiat Chrysler’s gains. Still, the Ram’s screen has gotten the attention of executives.
“Are we seeing competitive activity, that we’re losing sales because of the screen? No. But are we taking a really good look and talking to our customers about the size of the screen and usability, and size of the instrument panel? Absolutely,” said Mark LaNeve, Ford’s U.S. sales chief.
Pickups are precious to automakers because of their ability to command rich prices. Detroit’s top three auto manufacturers make at least $10,000 in profit per truck, and often more for higher trim versions, according to Morningstar Inc. But there could be some bumps in the road ahead. Analysts have started to raise concern about average transaction prices marching higher and affordability being a key reason new-vehicle demand is tailing off.
Touch screens themselves are a relatively cheap commodity, but many display panels -- as well as the components and materials they’re made of -- are imported from China and subject to tariffs. Executives have said they’re coping with the tariffs but are fearful they will be ratcheted up further as tensions mount.
Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas has warned that consumer demand for trucks and SUVs may be approaching a peak. GM Chief Financial Officer Dhivya Suryadevara, said this week her company expects sales to shift away from trucks and sport utility vehicles and back to passenger cars in the next recession.
In the meantime, automakers are trying to pick their spots on what high-tech interior truck features can be deployed to best defend -- or expand -- their market share. The new GMC Sierra has a heads-up display on the windshield, and the Ford F-150 has a knob-controlled system to help you steer a trailer in reverse.
“There’s more content in vehicles than there was before, that’s definitely true,” said Davis of IHS. “I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that there will be more in a year than there is today.”
--With assistance from Kenneth Hughes.
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