The deep bass sound vibrates your breastbone as you
meander through a corner of the massive International Consumer
Electronics Show. Someone is simply showing off car audio systems,
but it feels like the vehicles themselves are announcing their beefy
And why not? Cars and automotive technologies from startups and
established aftermarket makers are abundant at this gadget show.
They're coming in such variety that they encapsulate many of the
advances seen elsewhere at CES in cellphones, TVs, video games and
wireless Internet networking.
For example, one theme at CES is the development of touch-screen
and voice-activated controls for portable devices. Cars are showing
that off, too, with systems that let people make phone calls,
navigate, choose music and have e-mails read to them without
dangerously fumbling for manual controls.
Or look how CES overall is highlighting the widening availability
of Internet content. Autonet Mobile Inc. offers a small box for car
trunks that takes a cellular broadband signal and uses Wi-Fi to
relay it to portable computers in the car, so people can browse the
Internet in the vehicle. And while the car is parked near a home
wireless network, people can beam music and video content to it for
enjoyment on forthcoming road trips.
``The car is a lifestyle product,'' said Sterling Pratz, Autonet
Mobile's CEO. ``It's not just a car anymore.''
The goal of all this stuff is to keep drivers better informed and
their passengers entertained. But no one seems to have a great
answer to the question of whether adding more technological choices
to moving vehicles will increase the dangerous problem of driver
Automobiles have had technological accouterments ever since the
advent of the car radio. In-vehicle technologies are already a US$10
billion market, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
But the auto and the electronics industries have not been closely
linked. Attempts in the 1990s at connecting cars to the Internet
One complicating factor has been that car makers design for a
much longer future than gadget makers, which expect buyers to dig
back into their pockets virtually every year. So automakers that
select particular electronics might get locked into formats or
functions that are obsolete when the car is still young, or even by
the time it finally makes it to showroom floors. Aftermarket vendors
have often filled the gap.
Now, though, factory-installed technologies are getting more
powerful. One example is the way Ford Motor Co. has teamed with
Microsoft Corp. on Sync, a voice-activated communication and
One reason for automakers' increasing comfort is that powerful
computers now found in cars can get software updates fired in by
wireless networks, letting vendors fix bugs and keep features up to
date, said Erik Goldman, president of Hughes Telematics Inc. His
company is expected to begin outfitting Chrysler and Mercedes cars
with a navigation, entertainment and diagnostics service in 2009.
Another change is that car makers have often sought to
differentiate themselves with proprietary electronic systems, like
General Motors Corp.'s OnStar, that operate independently from
gadgets people regularly use outside the car.
But these days automotive electronics are being more closely
integrated with standard web technologies.
For example, the Hughes Telematics system will include a personal
web portal that lets people remotely lock and unlock their car
doors, plan routes, check their auto's emissions and engine status,
select music playlists and even monitor their vehicle's location.
Increasing ties to the web could broaden the field of
automotive-tech vendors beyond traditional players. Last year,
OnStar began working with MapQuest.com, part of Time Warner Inc.'s
AOL LLC, so drivers could plan their routes online and send them to
At a CES panel on the interplay between cars and electronics,
Eckhard Steinmeier, general manager of BMW's ``Connected Drive''
initiative, showed a commercial in which a woman says she wants to
investigate sushi options. So she heads out of her house, in the
rain, to do a Google search from her Beemer's dashboard.
Car technology might be catching up to the state of gadgetry
today, but it's not quite yet at the vanguard. The electronics
industry ``is still developing technology faster than the automaker
can adapt,'' said Chris Cook, a vice-president with Mitek Corp., a
maker of car audio equipment.
But there is one sure sign of vigorous cross-pollination: Some
automotive technologies at CES are described with some of the web's
most painful jargon. Has anyone really ever said they want more
``infotainment'' in their car?