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Cyber Cars

Computers take the wheel as the Auto industry turns to electronic bells and whistles
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

Three a.m., and Butch Leitzinger is running 200 miles an hour down the treacherous Molsanne Straight at LeMans. All he has to do is hit a little spilt oil, a bit of debris, and the 24 Hours of LeMans race will be over for him. It's a moonless night, and at this speed, his headlights don't do much good. But Leitzinger has a high-tech advantage. Mounted on the steering wheel is a small video monitor connected to a camera hidden inside the nose of his ground-hugging Cadillac LMP racer. Developed by the military supplier Raytheon, it's designed to "see" heat waves, rather than light. Dubbed Night Vision, it can cut through the darkest night--as well as the fogs that can roll across the track--extending the distance a driver can see up to five times farther than with regular headlights.  

Without Night Vision, says Leitzinger, "you just blindly drive around at 200 miles an hour." It's taken him a while to get comfortable with the system's ghostly image, which looks a lot like a black-and-white negative, "but you learn to feel comfortable with it." Many American motorists are discovering the same thing, for Night Vision became available this year on the newly redesigned Cadillac DeVille. The $1,995 option is proving popular enough that Cadillac is now considering when, rather than if, it will offer the system on its other models.

In an effort to regain its position as the American luxury sales leader--and expand its market overseas--Cadillac is rolling out an array of advanced electronic features. For the 2001 model year, it will offer the optional Personal Infotainment System, essentially making a car like the Seville a personal computer on wheels. A motorist will be able to log on to the Internet to access e-mail, sports and weather reports, and news and stock updates. A small port will accept common computer memory chips, so you'll be able to listen to music recorded in the increasingly popular MP3 format.  

Cadillac isn't the only automaker investing in hightech. Ford Motor Co. will offer Internet access on many of its 2001 Lincoln models, as well as the European version of the Ford Focus. "We've entered a world where you measure speed in gigahertz and pipeline bursts, not horsepower," suggests Ford's design chief J Mays. To underscore this idea, Mays penned the 24.7, a quirky concept car (see profile of Ford chief executive officer Jac Nasser in the June 2000 Cigar Aficionado) loaded with electronic features, including an instrument panel that can be customized, as if it were a digital bulletin board. Then there's Mercedes-Benz. You can order a top-line S-Class sedan with a cruise control system that automatically adapts to the flow of traffic and maintains safe distances between cars. In Europe, that car is already offered with real-time traffic guidance.   Forget leather seats, sunroofs and mag wheels. For a growing number of new car buyers, the options of choice are digital. "Electronics will become a major differentiator for [automakers] in terms of their brands," predicts Michael Heidingsfelder of the strategy consulting firm Roland Berger & Partners. Affluent motorists are loading up on an array of high-tech features, but in the coming years, such silicon systems will become increasingly common in mass-market vehicles as well.

Even the most basic automobiles already have a lot of electronics hidden under the hood, starting with the engine-control computer. These systems improve performance, reduce emissions and increase fuel economy. Antilock brakes have become all but ubiquitous these days. And traction and stability control systems are increasingly popular options. Computers control operations on the Chevrolet Corvette, from the active suspension to the power windows--even lighting. If an interior light is left on for more than 15 minutes, the computer automatically shuts it off to save the battery.

A new study by Roland Berger shows that 22 percent of the money you'll pay for the typical new car this year goes into its electronic systems. Before the decade is out, the study predicts that figure will rise to more than 40 percent. And consider this: as with home and office electronics, the price of onboard technology is falling fast, so that increase initially understates the amount of digital hardware you'll find in tomorrow's automobiles.  

"We're at the dawn of a transportation revolution," declares Mark Hogan, president of General Motors' eGM unit, which oversees the automaker's in-car and online operations. Virtually no aspect of tomorrow's car will be immune from the electronics insurgency. Besides improving performance and making cars cleaner, safer and more fuel-efficient, the new technology will enhance security, comfort and convenience.  

Telematics will play a role in many of these areas. By the narrowest technical definition, the term refers to "the convergence of telecommunications and the microprocessor," explains John Correia, supervisor of the core wireless group for the automotive supplier Visteon. In other words, telematics means using a computer and a phone to do something. To Brian Gratch, director of marketing for the Telematics Group at Motorola, "Telematics is about fundamentally changing the driving experience, the way the car functions, and the way the driver--or passengers--interface with the vehicle."  

General Motors' OnStar system is one very popular example. At its most basic, OnStar uses cellular phone technology to link your car to a central dispatch center. The vehicle also is equipped with a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receiver. The system receives signals broadcast by a network of orbiting navigation satellites. By triangulating those signals, the car's computer can pinpoint its position to within a few feet. (President Clinton recently ordered the military, which operates the GPS network, to stop scrambling the signal, thereby improving its accuracy.) In an emergency, a motorist simply has to press a single button to summon help and dispatchers will guide rescue crews to him. OnStar also signals for help automatically (after checking with the driver) if the airbag is triggered, under the assumption that the driver may be incapacitated.  

The service offers a variety of additional features. Locked your keys in the car? Don't break the window; call OnStar Center, and the dispatcher can send an electronic signal to automatically unlock the doors. He can even sound the horn if you've forgotten where you parked. Need to make travel plans or order roses for an anniversary you nearly forgot? If you have OnStar's optional concierge service, the dispatcher can handle that as well.  

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