Don't look now, but pretty soon all drivers on the highway may lose control of his car.
At least, that is, if General Motors' experimental AUTOnomy car - which doesn't have a steering wheel and relies on a computer to take over most driving functions - ever goes into mass production.
An autonomous car may be a good thing, too, what with all the electronic distractions - from DVD navigation systems to radios that can surf the Internet - appearing in cars here at the annual North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
At this year's premier automative industry get-together, manufacturers are showing off how new models and cutting-edge ideas to the public and press - such as cars that look like home-entertainment centers and autos that boast moveable glass hatchbacks. The show reveals just how much technology is helping to shape the latest output from the Motor city, reinventing the car in ways that, just a few years ago, would have seemed like a science-fiction fantasy.
When it comes to matching up technology with consumers' desires, the buzzword most bandied about here is 'genteel.' The buying public seems no longer willing to tolerate cars that behave like mechanical objects with roaring, smoking engines, squealing tires, and weighty steering. Though there's a seemingly unprecedented number of convertibles and small sports cars at the show - such as the Pontiac Solstice, Chevrolet Bel Air, Dodge Razor and Isuzu XSR - the greater emphasis is a new set of wheels that are quiet, plushly comfortable, well-behaved and easy to handle.
Oh, and there's plenty of electronic gadgetry to coddle and entertain passengers, too.
"Consumers are always looking for new features that give them value for money, and electronics enable that," says David Cole, head of the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Car manufacturers say that people are spending so much time in the car and facing such pressure at work that they can't afford to be away from e-mail, Web surfing, and the movies for a moment. Consumers want appliances that support their hectic lives without the devices calling too much attention to themselves. (There's that word again, genteel.)
The downside of having so many electronic gizmos in new cars: Finding new ways to fit them all in. The most popular approach so far seems to be sharing a single screen on the dashboard (which itself takes up valuable real estate) to control a plethora of secondary functions such as GPS navigation system maps and computer controls. By relegating climate, audio, and built-in cell phone controls to the screen, they can save the space of having separate buttons all over the dashboard. That means to change the radio station or turn up the heat, you have to switch from the navigation screen to the appropriate menu. Then look down at the screen and choose what you want to do.
Even this process is taking too many buttons and this year automakers have gone to a computer-like mouse to control all the electronic screen functions. The mouse in BMW's new flagship 740i luxury sedan looks more like a big-chrome knob down between the seats. Turn it to select different functions and press to select.
This saves space and clutter, but clearly does little for driver concentration. Maybe that's why drivers want new cars that are otherwise as calmly obsequious as possible.
Judging by the looks of the cars here, designers' next job is blending a computer screen gracefully in to the interior - which otherwise is looking more and more like a modern lounge. Just about every "concept" car in Detroit featured at least one small movie screen to palliate the kids in the back. Many had a screen in back of every seat.
"Automakers are paying more attention to designing the interior of the car," says Jeremy Anwyl, of Edmunds.com, a consumer-automotive Website. "They've realized that we care how the inside looks, too."
In fact, heavy circuitry is adding so much weight to cars that engineers' next challenge is using technology to reduce weight from other parts of the car. "Future weight -saving advances will only allow us to break even, because consumers continue to expect more electronics that add more and more weight in copper," says Wolfgang Reitzle, head of Ford's luxury-car division.
Americans also seem to want the car that can do it all - a station wagon, sports sedan, minivan, pickup, even convertible all rolled into one. Designers are responding with movable gates and electronically dimming roof panels that make many of the new breed of combination "crossover" cars feel like airy convertibles inside. A knob allows the driver to make the glass roof panels light or dark, depending on the mood.
A series of motors can move glass hatchbacks out of the way and tuck away tailgates to make an open-air pickup bed in the back of, for instance the Buick LaCrosse sedan or the Saab 9X sports coupe. The 2002 Chrysler minivans have not only power-operated side doors, but a power tailgate and the 2003 Ford Expedition uses electric motors to raise and lower the rear seat.
The technology on display here are not only skin deep. In some cases they're likely to change the way we even think about our cars. The General Motors AUTOnomy looks like nothing more than a giant skateboard with an electric motor in each wheel and turns the whole idea of the car on its head. Computerlike plug-and-play technology would allow you to change the whole body of the car and simply plug the new one into an electronic socket that would connect all the controls - steering, brakes, "gas" - to the new body much like plugging a PDA into your computer. Plus, you could sit anywhere you like; a portable joystick could handle all the controls.
If this is the car of the future, then driving to work could be just like playing an old Atari driving game from the 1970s.
By Cathy Scott and Associated Press
The Detroit Auto Show isn't the only expo this week with wave-of-the-future wares. In Las Vegas, the International Consumer Electronics Show is boasting the latest in high-tech gadgetry. The show, which ends today, follows a holiday season when Americans gobbled up gadgets that help them cocoon at home or communicate on the road. From flat-screen TVs to pocket-held music players, a key trend is smaller and thinner. Among the show's products:
The TeleZapper by Privacy Technologies, a small box that attaches to a phone, reduces annoying telemarketer calls by emitting a special tone to tell automated dialing computers that your number is disconnected.
A GPS Personal Locator by Wherify, worn like a wristwatch, uses global positioning satellite technology to help a worried parent locate the child who has it on.
The Moxi Media Center, a digital media server with an 80-gigabyte hard drive, has the ability to integrate digital audio, video, television, and computer data.
A wireless weather station, by Royal, is the size of a wall clock and displays temperatures, humidity, and more.
Fashion Cam is a digital camera designed for kids. At $69, it has a fixed memory "with no pieces to lose," says Thomas Piehn, marketing manager for maker Vivitar.
The Rio Advanced Digital Audio Center, by SONICblue, stores more than 650 CDs, can record music onto a CD, and stream the music to Rio receiver units in the home.