More Digital Fun Is Rolling Into Cars

Remember when a "hard drive" meant a long road trip rather than a digital storage device? Well, the two are becoming much more closely related.

Modern cars in some sense are already considered computers on wheels. For years, automakers have been using microprocessors for anti-lock brakes, fuel injection, air bags and other control systems. But the impact of digital technology is stepping out from under the hood -- and right into the face of drivers and passengers.

At the 2005 New York Auto Show in New York City this week, several carmakers are displaying concept vehicles that map out how cars could soon hit the road with some very high-tech options.

Ford Motor Co.'s Mercury division showcases a sport utility vehicle concept called the Meta One, which replaces traditional dashboard gauges and instruments with computerized controls and displays. Three customizable display screens can keep the driver informed of the car's speed and other information. Meanwhile, passengers can download digital video -- from movies to cartoons -- from a satellite service provided by the Sirius digital radio system.

In Ford's futuristic van, the Synus, a 45-inch, flat-panel display, covers the entire rear door. A camera turns the display into a virtual rear window when the Synus is being driven. But once the van is parked, remote-controlled panels can slide over the windows, darkening the interior so the huge display can be used as a movie screen.

Scion, a unit of Japanese giant Toyota, has a similar concept vehicle called the T2B. Its computer-powered dashboard includes slots so drivers can add their own portable digital music players. Wireless connections will allow people to download digital music, movies, games and information from the Internet. There's even a digital projector that can be added to the T2B's ceiling to show movies.

"This effectively turns the car into an entertainment system when it's parked," Jim Farley, chief executive of Scion, said at an auto show news conference to discuss the T2B.

Taking the Show on the Road

Although makers are quick to note that such concept cars won't necessarily move beyond lab prototypes, the evolution of cars from transportation to mobile media rooms isn't surprising.

Digital technology has already revolutionized home and mobile entertainment with computers and portable devices, such as Apple's wildly successful iPod. And some analysts say the successful consumer adoption of such digital media devices is fueling the car industry's push to get on board with the next wave of in-vehicle entertainment.

"There's a tremendous success in the computer industry where you have people walking around with iPods and digital media 'jukeboxes,'" said Dan Benjamin, a senior analyst with ABI Research in Oyster Bay, N.Y. "People have all this data with them, they want to be able to access it -- even when on the road. We think digital entertainment in the car is the next big thing."

Mobile Media Means More Money

Indeed, some carmakers are already taking the steps in producing rolling digital media platforms.

Earlier this year, General Motors' Chevrolet division introduced an optional digital entertainment system for its new Uplander minivan. The Mobile Digital Media unit uses a removable, wallet-sized hard drive that can be connected to home computers and can store up to 40 digital movies or 10,000 songs. The option, available later this year, will cut down on the number of CDs and DVDs that clutter most minivans now, say company officials.

The addition of such systems will woo more tech-savvy consumers into showrooms, say analysts. But the high-tech options -- priced at thousands of dollars -- also will help add to an automaker's bottom line.

"Here's the thing: OEMs [carmakers] are moving faster on digital entertainment because they can add revenues to the car's sales and make them more profitable," said Benjamin. "If you can upgrade customers from a $22,000 minivan to a higher-trim line with a high-value item like a DVD player, that's very much a value-add for carmakers."

Life in the Fast Lane

But even as the auto industry takes relatively quick steps to adopt new digital entertainment systems, it may not be fast enough, say some skeptics. It takes years for makers to design a new car platform with new features. And to recoup those development costs, makers have to commit to selling that car model line for six or seven years -- a period in which computer and consumer technology could change several times over.

Such disparate time frames have left the auto industry playing desperate catchup. Case in point: trying to satisfy drivers who own Apple iPods.

For now, only very few cars -- mainly models from German behemoth BMW -- have built-in radios that can seamlessly integrate with Apple's digital media player. And that was only because Alpine Electronics of America, a car equipment maker in Torrance, Calif., along with Apple and BMW, believed that the iPod would become a huge commercial success.

About 2 ½ years ago, "We started to see that the whole portable music thing would impact automobiles because now people have their music organized the way they want it," said Stephen Witt, vice president of marketing for Alpine. "We felt it was a significant change in consumer behavior and would be a driving success for Apple's iPod -- long before it had any major share in the marketplace."

Still, it took 14 months for Alpine to work out the kinks to developing an iPod-compatible radio for BMW. And it's a feat that won't be easy for carmakers to duplicate on their own, says Witt.

"Now you have every car company scrambling to come up with an iPod connectivity solution for current [in-car] systems," he said. "They are an afterthought. They're engineered into [radio] systems that don't have digital media playback incorporated into their [original] design... so iPod connectivity is a problem."

Crash and Burn?

Another factor carmakers have to consider is how to safely integrate all these new digital technologies into vehicles.

"People have all these things -- iPods, GPS navigation systems, DVD players, computers -- that they're bringing into their cars now," said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for NPD TechWorld in New York. "But carmakers have legitimate concerns of safety and certification. They need to make sure that they are going to integrate these capabilities so that they pass federal safety standards and won't be additional distractions to drivers."

As such, Ross and others believe that the clear majority of in-car digital entertainment system will remain the domain of so-called "after-market" players -- equipment makers such as Alpine and auto shops that provide electronics and accessories for customizing cars.

"The after-market has always had its core customers -- young, male 18- to 25-year-old hot-rodders -- where in terms of in-car electronics, there's a lot of independence and personalization," said Ross. "There's less of a concern for safety in the after-market, where you can see it in [MTV Networks' TV show] 'Pimp My Ride,' where they create fantasy vehicles where anything goes."

A Race to Catch Up

Indeed, after-market players have offered solutions much more quickly than automakers. Car radio makers such as Alpine, Pioneer, Sony and others offer in-dash stereos that can accept audio -- and sometimes video inputs -- from external media devices. And some are working on even more capable add-in options, says Ross. One after-market radio, for example, can automatically connect and synchronize its digital tunes with those stored on an owner's home computer using built-in Wi-Fi capabilities.

But carmakers are catching on to the demand and need for solutions as well. This year, at least a dozen more carmakers will be offering options that allow iPods to connect directly to factory-installed car stereos. And the auto industry has been trying to work with the fast-paced consumer electronics industry to develop better digital media integrations standards, says Alpine's Witt.

"It would mean a lot to the after-market and a lot to consumers where if you shop for a new car, you can hook up all this stuff -- the iPods or whatever's next -- and have it safely plug into the car and control it without having all these wires and complicated setups," he said.