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.

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