Boston area firms create auto industry hub

Safi Barqawi works on a custom stereo cover, part of his company’s “OEM Plus”approach to retooling older cars.
Safi Barqawi works on a custom stereo cover, part of his company’s “OEM Plus”approach to retooling older cars.
George Kennedy

If you were to take a drive to Kenmore Square and turn toward the Boston University campus, you would be surrounded by automotive history. Many of the buildings that stand along Commonwealth Avenue were once lead dealerships for major American automakers: Buick, Oldsmobile, Chrysler, you name it. The buildings have since been repurposed; you can walk into the Star Market at 1065 Commonwealth Ave. and pick out avocados in what was once a Chevy dealership.

Today, at AVI (AudioVideo Integration), a small, yet well-appointed shop in Newton, another facet of the auto industry takes shape. Safi Barqawi outfits a Lamborghini Galladro with the latest entertainment and safety equipment. He makes the new equipment look as clean to the original design as possible. This technique is called “OEM plus” and is for a special type of customer.

“Say you have a Maserati owner who loves its performance,” says Barqawi, “but the car does not have the latest tech features. We install them and make it look as if it were ordered like that from the factory.”

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Niche automakers like Maserati or Lamborghini are not organized to keep up with the latest tech features, so “add on” specialists like Barqawi and his crew find their niche. They can fit just about any car with the latest lane departure warning system, backup camera, or navigation system.

While AVI caters to a discerning customer, the Boston area is rife with businesses that provide crucial services to the entire automotive market. There is perhaps no better example than Nuance. The tech company behind voiceactivated controls is located in Burlington and its products are found in every single automobile on the market.

Nuance has been working with voice controls for the last 15 years, but as President and GM of Nuance’s Automotive Business Unit, Arnd Weil, points out, it was around 2004 that the voice control market exploded.

“Starting with Ford’s SYNC, we saw the first major domain to have media and music via voice control.”

Previously employed for placing calls, SYNC and systems like it, combined with the inevitable migration of smartphone functionality into our cars, has resulted in a spike in demand for Nuance’s speech recognition software. The company’s presence in the market has grown from two million vehicles in 2007 to 20 million in 2012, and that trend does not look to be changing.

As automakers cram more and more functions into new cars, Nuance has adapted. “We have changed much of our business to hosting,” says Weil, referring to off-site managing of data. “Soon we will be able to update the user interface of a touch screen over the air.”

Since it takes more than seven years to develop a new vehicle, the over-the-air, or OTA, update is perhaps the best way to reconcile auto design time with the short lead time of the app market.

One way to use voice control is to lower the top on a convertible. That’s the business of the Haartz Corporation of Acton. The company has been offering cloth convertible tops to the automotive industry since 1907. It has developed and produced convertible tops for nearly every automotive brand. Most recently, it inked a deal withVolkswagen to produce the top for the 2014Volkswagen Beetle Convertible. Haartz also creates aftermarket tops, catering to classic car owners looking to replace that tattered roof. If you own a convertible car, there is a good chance that Haartz developed it.

Convertible top or hard top, when you buy a new car, you have to go through a dealer, and Waltham-based helps steer customers in the right direction. Started by entrepreneur Chip Grueter, the site has become a user-supported hub for ratings on automotive dealerships.

Lest you think DealerRater is merely Yelp for cars, Grueter’s site provides a unique service, the opportunity for dealers to interact directly with those writing the reviews. “We allow interaction between consumers and dealers,” says Grueter. “If there is a negative review, the dealer can reach out to the customer privately as a means of trying to make the customer’s experience better.”

According to Grueter, this interaction can be done as publicly or privately as the customer desires. “One thing we’ve learned,” says Grueter, “is how personable the dealers are, and how much desire there is to please the customer, especially after a negative experience.”

Grueter says the culture has changed, and the negative stigma that has once been associated with going to a car dealership has been lifted.

Even though Boston is no Detroit, the same ingenuity that has brought high tech to this region has made the Boston area a significant hub of automotive activity. So consider: The next time you are out on our highways, you might just be passing the person who’s building or inventing an integral part of your next car.