January 9, 2008

Autos Becoming Vibrant Electronics Hub

The International Consumer Electronics Show is a great place to show off some new high-tech gadgets for the auto industry. Much of the ado over cell phones, televisions, video games and wireless Internet are also showing up in the auto market.

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.

The highlight on Internet content is big as well. 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. While the car is parked near a home wireless network, users can transmit music and videos for enjoyment on an upcoming road trip. "The car is a lifestyle product," said Sterling Pratz, Autonet Mobile's CEO. "It's not just a car anymore."

Technological accessories have been part of automobiles ever since the introduction of the car radio. In-vehicle technologies were an $11 billion market in 2007, according to the CEA, and it is expected to increase to $12.8 billion by end of 2008.

However, the auto and electronics industries have not been closely connected. Attempts to link the two technologies with the Internet in the 90s failed. One factor that has been complicated is that car makers design for a much longer future than gadget makers, which expect buyers to reach into their wallet virtually every year.

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 entertainment system.

One reason for automakers' increasing comfort is that powerful computers now found in cars can get software updates 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.

Today, automotive electronics are being more closely retrofitted 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, part of Time Warner Inc.'s AOL LLC, so drivers could plan their routes online and send them to the car.

General Manager of BMW's "Connected Drive" initiative, Eckhard Steinmeier, showed a commercial at a CES panel 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.

Even though car technology is catching up to the gadget technology, it still is not quite on the bandwagon yet. 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.

There is one sure sign of enthusiastic cross-breeding though. Some automotive technologies at CES are described with some of the Web's most painful slang. Can people handle all this "infotainment" in their car?