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Sprint unveils in-car communications system for automakers

A woman walks past a Sprint store in New York's financial district, October 15, 2012. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
A woman walks past a Sprint store in New York's financial district, October 15, 2012. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Nichola Groom

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Sprint Nextel Corp unveiled on Thursday an in-vehicle communications and entertainment system it hopes automakers will adopt as they seek to attract younger, more connected consumers.

Sprint Velocity allows drivers to connect mobile phones to their vehicles through Bluetooth, providing access to a range of applications, including voice-activated texting and email, navigation, news and sports updates and music.

Sprint Nextel, the No. 3 U.S. mobile carrier, is betting that Sprint Velocity will be superior to the products developed by the automakers themselves.

"They know how to make great cars. They assemble these vehicles that we all fall in love with," said Wayne Ward, Sprint's vice president of emerging solutions, at the LA Auto Show. "But when it comes to this stuff, they are not in the communications business."

Sprint Velocity powers Chrysler Group LLC's Uconnect system already offered on two of its vehicles, the new Ram 1500 pickup truck and SRT Viper. The companies have not disclosed pricing for the system, but Uconnect packages on the truck range from $465 to $970, depending on the screen size.

Some 45 percent of car buyers said navigation systems that help drivers avoid traffic are very important to their purchase decisions, while 35 percent said the same of a car's ability to respond to voice commands, according to a survey by IBM to be released soon.

About 30 percent said entertainment systems were very important, particularly buyers between the ages 18 and 29. Still, efforts by Ford, General Motors Co and other automakers have been widely panned.

Glitches in the MyFord Touch system sent Ford tumbling in Consumer Reports's annual survey of reliability. The magazine has also called GM's new CUE system for its Cadillac lineup, "convoluted and frustrating.

"This stuff is pretty hard," Sprint's Ward said. Automakers "traditionally have had to deal with every single applications vendor and tried to put these things together from a systems integration perspective themselves. And not doing it with a background and a legacy of understanding mobility."

Automakers can adopt Sprint Velocity as a turn-key system or customize it to suit their needs, Ward said. The auto market offers a big opportunity for carriers like Sprint and rivals Verizon and AT&T to reach new users.

Verizon earlier this year said it would buy Hughes Telematics Inc for $612 million in cash to beef up its enterprise business with machine-to-machine communications services in automotive and other industries.

"Where are we as carriers going to get new growth?" said Ward. "It's from this stuff. It's from vehicles."

(Reporting By Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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