Cars as rolling offices, with a laptop on dash

Auto show reveals how much cars are being 'wired' to outside world.

Here's what your typical commute to work will soon look like: You're clipping down the highway in a sport-utility vehicle that resembles a Humvee with metallic paint.

You punch a keypad on the dashboard to check your e-mail: Two jokes again - bad ones - from your father-in-law. You surf the Web, checking what happened on the Tokyo stock market overnight. You call the office on a voice-activated cellphone to see if the first meeting is still at 9. The kids, whom you're dropping off at the Happy Tot day-care center, watch "Sesame Street" on a screen in the backseat.

Welcome to the budding era of the "networked" car. For better or worse, your vehicle is slowly transforming into part office, part electronic playpen.

Driven by the convergence of communications and computer technology, cars are becoming less about transportation and more about "multitasking" - in essence, turning driving into something resembling riding the train. This is one of the recurring themes at this year's North American International Auto Show starting here today. While the trend is likely to exacerbate the debate over the wisdom of offering drivers so many distractions, automakers are nevertheless pushing ahead with high-end models increasingly wired to the outside world. For instance:

* The GMC Terracross, a 2004 luxury SUV that appeared here first, sports a docking port for a laptop computer in the dashboard so you can do anything from the car that you can from your desk.

* The O4, a small convertible also unveiled by General Motors, has a dashboard that can display whatever you want to project onto it -from a landscape portrait to your Web browser. It follows Ford's 24/7 concept last year.

* BMW emphasized the dashboard in its Z9 roadster concept car that has one electronic display in front of the driver for speed, fuel range, and other driving instruments, and another in the center of the dashboard that can display maps, e-mail, and the Internet where passengers can read it.

"In 10 years, we will have a car that will be able to drive itself," says Watts Wacker, a futurist and founder of First Matter in Westport, Conn. "It culminates in the virtual driver."

Making a commute productive

Behind the office-in-a-car trend is the growing perception that as lives grow busier, commutes lengthen, and congestion expands, Americans won't tolerate time wasted sitting in traffic.

Many already don't.

Wireless phones are the fastest-penetrating technology in history. Today, 44 percent of drivers carry cellphones in their cars, 7 percent of drivers have e-mail access in their cars, and 3 percent have fax machines, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year.

While the presence of so many electronic gizmos is enticing to many drivers, it can pose problems for others on the road: Driver distractions cause one-quarter of the 6.3 million crashes in the US each year. Though safety experts are concerned, not everyone thinks that banning electronics from cars is the answer.

"Driver distraction needs to be looked at as a whole picture," says John Paul a safety advocate with AAA of Southern New England. "Just banning cell phones in cars doesn't help."

This year automakers are focusing on making technology easier to use from behind the wheel. The state of the art today is in developing voice recognition and synthesis, so drivers won't have to take their hands off the wheel or eyes off the road. Later this year, General Motors hopes to offer verbal e-mail-reading software along with its satellite-communications system.

But the voice-recognition software isn't ready for prime time, according to experts who have used it. Tell it to dial a 2, for instance, and you may get a 6. The systems are also inherently slow and inefficient.

So far, most of the new electronics are the province of expensive cars like Mercedes Benzes and Cadillacs. But they should trickle down to more mainstream cars quickly. In the meantime, screens that provide all this functionality in passenger cars are relegated to the back seat.

Virtually every minivan or SUV here offers multiple entertainment systems in back. Many offer two or three LCD screens so squabbling siblings can each play their own video game or watch their own movie - with headphones, to avoid distracting the driver.

Soon satellite radio will be able to broadcast movies on demand for the kids as well, says Mr. Wacker.

So called telematics - the myriad in-car communications systems - is infiltrating other parts of driving as well. GM's state-of-the-art OnStar system already fuses virtual communications and car controls. It uses a cellphone connection to link the car with a staffed communications center in Detroit. Their "service specialists" can track your location, lock or unlock your car doors. Later this year, they also will be able to diagnose engine malfunctions remotely.

Still, consumers may resist such advances out of privacy concerns, says Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore. If OnStar operators can always look up the location of your car, it may only be a matter of time before that information can be subpoenaed in court, for instance.

For now, automakers are largely fitting cars to use portable systems like laptops and Palms that can be "plugged" into the vehicle, rather than putting actual computers in them. That's because it would be difficult to upgrade a computer in a car. At the same time, many consumers won't pay extra for car communications when they're already spending $10 a month each for Internet, cable TV at home, and a Palm or cell phone.

Cars that drive themselves

The next step beyond computing and electronic communication in cars may be technology that allows the vehicle to drive itself. Last year Mercedes-Benz introduced Distronic, a cruise-control system that automatically keeps its distance from the car in front by applying the brakes without driver intervention.

Many cars already have automated controls for the brakes and gas in traction control and antilock brakes. And many vans equipped for disabled drivers use a video-game-like joystick to steer the car automatically as well.

Eventually, cars will shuttle themselves along at the speed limit. Such capability, says Wacker, may be only 10 years away. Of course, the only question then will be: Will drivers resent giving up all that control?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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