'License-plate game' takes a back seat to on-board video
It seems looking out the window just isn't good enough anymore.
This summer, more and more families are packing Nintendo and plenty of videos for that eight-hour trip to Grandma's house.
That's because automakers and aftermarket suppliers are offering increasingly complex entertainment systems in their minivans and SUVs, appealing to time- and attention-strapped families flush with cash.
Most new minivans and several SUVs come loaded with multiple-task stereos, headphones, TV screens, even wireless keyboards and full-fledged PCs.
Call it the driver attention-retention system. Recent press attention has focused on distractions to drivers posed by cellphones and other personal electronics. But if kids are happily engrossed in the back, mom and dad can keep their eyes on the road and won't have to keep answering, "We're not there yet!"
"There's no question that [TV in the car] is more for the parent," says Peggy Charren, who calls herself the grandmother of the Children's TV Act. "It might be better if kids were looking out the window or playing car games. As parents, we have to care about the messages our kids are getting from the programming they're looking at," she says.
Until recently, mobile video systems were almost exclusively the purview of full-size conversion vans and RVs, says Matt Swanston, spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) in Reston, Va.
But as the quality of small LCD screens improved and costs came down, more people have demanded these systems be installed in smaller family vehicles.
The growth is so fast no one has statistics yet on how many families have them, according to the CEA. General Motors says 17 percent of its minivan buyers opt for the systems.
While most systems offer only TVs and video-cassette players - equipped with headphones for kids so parents can listen to the stereo up front - state-of-the-art systems include DVD players and video-game hookups.
Cordless headphones are also available to avoid tangles. And computer docking stations with wireless keyboards let passengers play computer games anywhere in the car.
The most advanced systems offer multiple TV screens in seatbacks, and "zoned" sound systems, so while toddlers watch Barney in the middle seats, older kids can play video games in the way back, and teenagers scattered on the sides can listen to their favorite rap tunes.
Such systems, factory installed, will set you back $2,000 to $3,000 on a new minivan.
But the minimum cost to keep the kids occupied is $300 for a backpack-like Video Traveler sold at Kmart.
The Audiovox unit (and others like it) hangs from the front-seat headrests and plugs into the car's cigarette lighter. While most models simply come with video players and video-game hookups, some also get TV reception.
Another popular option for older minivans is a floor console with a small, 11-inch traditional TV and a video player that bolts between the front seats The bubble-shaped unit, which costs $500 to $600, can be permanently installed or simply clipped in and run with a cord from the car's lighter.
One version can even be moved into the house and run off a traditional wall outlet, says Chris Horn, vice president of consumer affairs for the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association in Diamond Bar, Calif.
These consoles work best for small families because they are difficult to view from way back, says Sue Elliott-Sink, a product-information specialist for SEMA. Overhead consoles, however, are easier for more people to see, although the screens still don't work well if you're viewing from an angle.
Just about any mobile video system can accommodate standard video-game consoles from Nintendo, Sony, and Sega. Household game consoles only need a voltage inverter to plug into a vehicle's cigarette lighter.
One problem consumers face is that electronic equipment is advancing faster than automotive technology. So the CEA is scrambling to develop wiring and installation standards so drivers can upgrade electronic components without trading in their cars.
Within two to three years, cellphone connections will be fast enough that kids can download their favorite movies and songs on the go, says Mr. Horn.
From there, he says, it's only a small step to putting the whole Internet at a kids' disposal. And that should make a trip of any length bearable.
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