DETROIT (WWJ) – What’s catching the eye of car buyers these days? Technology. That’s the opinion of more and more auto executives.

“Whether it’s part of the car embedded, or it’s your own ability to plug your iPhone into the vehicle, I think both areas we see an increased focus by executives on how they are going to spend their R and D dollars going forward,” says Betsy Meter, Detroit Automotive Audit Leader of KPMG.

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Every year, KPMG survey’s 200 mid-level auto executives on where they see the industry headed. This year’s study showed a decided shift in focus toward technology, with 69 percent of execs saying solutions for navigation, speech recognition and Internet connectivity will be very important going forward. That’s up significantly from last year.

Meter says it means technology is becoming almost as important as styling. That explains why auto companies are at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and have been looking to partner with tech companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft.

“We’ve been seeing a trend toward companies like Ford and GM entering into alliances with other companies to provide that jump start.”

This is KPMG’s 15th Annual, Global Automotive Executive Study. For several years, executives were mostly interested in surviving the recession then growing with the recovery.

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This study shows more of an interest in refining that growth to allow drivers to take their technology from their house to their vehicle.

“OEMs are introducing technology at rapid speed, and consumers are embracing it as quickly as it comes out and are even demanding more,” said Gary Silberg, national automotive industry leader for KPMG LLP. “Consumers expect to have connectivity at all times, including in their cars, whether through an embedded or unembedded device. Whereby car decisions have been based historically on price, styling and fuel economy, now consumers are equally interested in the technology aspects of the vehicle.”

Nearly half of the executives say they expect tech firms with no presence in the auto industry today to become major players in the near future.

“Automakers will continue to evolve cars into highly complex computers,” said Silberg. “The industry will need to aggressively invest in R&D and develop new partnerships that will allow them to continue to bring technology innovation to vehicles.”

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