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Carmakers Adding High-Tech Perks

March 4, 2007

SAN JOSE, Calif. — When friends check out Aaron Priest’s new Acura TL sedan, the oohs and aahs start on the inside.

Forget the powerful 3.5-liter, 286-horsepower engine; they’re more enthralled with the car’s rearview video camera and the in-dash voice-command system.

“The technology is what gets people the most,” said Priest, a 23-year-old lab technician at The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. “They don’t really care anymore about what’s under the hood. It’s all about what’s in the car now.”

“Pimping your ride” – a term popularized by an MTV reality TV show – is no longer just for celebrities, the superrich, or those who hand over their cars to aftermarket accessory installers.

Dashboard electronics – also called “telematics” – are increasingly sold on even modestly priced vehicles. The tech perks – some sold as standard features and some as specially ordered options – range from heated cup holders and air-conditioned glove compartments to rear-facing cameras, voice-activated navigation systems and keys that automatically unlock your car as soon as you’re within three feet of it.

Although sophisticated dashboard video displays can add thousands of dollars to a car’s sticker price, other equipment can turn even a basic Toyota Corolla or Volkswagen Jetta into a tricked-out ride.

The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that U.S. factory-to-dealer sales of in-vehicle technologies will rise to $9.6 billion in 2007 from $8.5 billion in 2006.

Many automakers introduce cutting-edge telematics on luxury models. But as electronics prices decline and the research and development cost is amortized, automakers such as General Motors Corp. (GM) and Honda Motor Corp. have cascaded the technology into low-end models, offering some of the gadgetry previously available only through aftermarket installers.

Auxiliary jacks for portable music players and Bluetooth wireless for handsfree cell phone calls are now often factory-installed standards, as are 10-speaker, 360-degree surround-sound stereos with active noise cancellation in DVD-A and CD formats. IPod integration kits for $150 to $200 extra allow drivers to control the portable player from steering wheel buttons while keeping the gadget hidden in a glove box or center console.

“You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get the toys,” said Stuart Draper, operations manager at a Chrysler Jeep dealership in San Francisco.

Priest’s $35,500 Acura has enough perks to offer a taste of luxury. Its navigation system can change radio stations or the climate by voice command, and acts as an on-board concierge.

When his girlfriend climbs into the car, Priest said, she orders a toasty temperature for herself – “passenger side 80 degrees” – while he keeps his side at 70 degrees.

On a recent evening when they were in search of a restaurant, the navigation system’s Zagat ratings helped them decide. It turned out to be one of their best Italian dinners ever.

Chrysler’s 2007 Sebring, with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $18,995, offers a cup holder that can either keep drinks cold or warm. And like a growing number of models, it has a key-chain ignition – a feature that’s especially handy on cold mornings when the vehicle can be started from the warmth of one’s home.

Soon, Sebring models will also offer an “infotainment” voice-activated navigation system that has a 20-gigabyte hard drive and a USB port for downloading and storing directions, maps, music, photos, and other digital data, including voice memos. If the car is parked, you could also use it as a DVD player. The price tag: an extra $1,700.

It’s the kind of state-of-the-art feature that previously would have been found in higher-end vehicles. But to remain competitive today, carmakers have to cater to the creature comforts of the digital era.

“As we get more electronics in our lives, from cell phones to portable music, how we bring that into our cars is important to a lot of people,” said Said Deep, a spokesman for Ford Motor Co. “And the buyer we’re focusing on is the younger buyer who is used to this lifestyle already.”

Telematics Research Group analyst Phil Magney estimates that Bluetooth handsfree systems will be available in 37 percent of 2007 models, up from 28 percent last year; voice-recognition controls will rise to 59 percent from 39 percent; and iPod-integration will jump to 47 percent from 12 percent.

Offerings for built-in rearview cameras will double to 18 percent in 2007, while ultrasonic parking assistance, which signals with beeping noises the proximity to an object behind the car, will grow to 45 percent, up from 38 percent. In-dash navigation systems will be available in 69 percent of the car models in 2007, up from 60 percent the previous year, according to the research firm.

One of the industry’s more advanced systems will be Ford’s Sync, which connects digital music players to the car’s voice-control communications system and reads aloud cell-phone text messages and has 20 preset text-message responses.

Unlike some handsfree setups, Sync will allow users to continue a cell phone conversation when they enter the car, automatically switching to handsfree mode without the need to hang up. The flash memory-based system, controlled through voice commands and buttons on the steering wheel, is based on a Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) operating system for cars.

Sync will be available later this year in a dozen 2008 models, including the Ford Focus, the Mercury Milan and the Lincoln MKX. The price has not yet been set, but company officials have said it will cost less than $1,000.

It’s Ford’s answer to General Motors’ OnStar system and DaimlerChrysler AG’ (DCX)s MyGIG in the increasingly competitive race for cabin electronics.

Although navigation systems are a godsend to the easily confused, other features take some getting used to – and some safety officials are concerned about the proliferation of dashboard gadgetry. Transport Canada – a division of the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators, which governs highway safety issues – conducted a two-year study and in 2005 warned that telematics “can increase driver distraction and cause an increase in distraction-related crashes.”

Priest, who bought his Acura in December, still hasn’t figured out all the voice commands, including how to switch from radio to auxiliary audio, which controls his iPod. The rear video has been extremely helpful for parking, but he recently realized peripheral vision was limited when he used it to back out of a friend’s narrow driveway. He nicked a mailbox.

Also, the feature to synchronize his phone contacts to the handsfree calling system so he would only need to say, “call John,” doesn’t work with his Cingular phone. He plans to switch to a compatible Verizon phone.

Still, Priest said, his geared-up Acura is a far cry from the 1995 Ford Thunderbird he used to drive.

“It had power seats,” he said, “and that was about it.”




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