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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

(continued from page 1)

Currently, OnStar is offered on 31 of General Motors' U.S. product lines. It's optional on some mid-line models, and standard equipment on top-line makes, such as the GMC Denali sport-utility vehicle. At the end of 1999, OnStar had 80,000 subscribers; the goal is to hit 1 million before this year is out, says Hogan. "In 18 months, we'll be at 3 million and the numbers should grow geometrically," in part because other automakers are lining up to use the service. Acura will offer OnStar in 2002 on its top-line RL sedan.  

Ford actually beat OnStar to market with its RESCU system, launched in 1996. But technical and strategic blunders resulted in slow sales. The automaker is striking back for the 2001 model year with a more robust service. Mercedes, meanwhile, introduced the TeleAid system on its 2000 models, and as with OnStar, a customer simply presses a button to get help in an emergency or, if the airbag is deployed, help is automatically sent. For 2001, the automaker will add an assortment of information services in vehicles equipped with video screens (including all M-Class sport-utility vehicles and other Mercedes-Benz models with optional navigation systems). E-mail and concierge services will "soon" follow, according to a company spokesman.  

With the arrival of these PC cars, telematic technology will take a giant step forward. "The car of the future," suggests Scott McNealy, chairman and chief executive of Sun Microsystems Inc., "is going to be...a browser on wheels." You'll soon have access to more than the Internet.  

By early next year, a cluster of new satellites parked high over the United States will begin broadcasting hundreds of channels of mostly commercial-free music, news and talk. Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio already have lined up most of the major carmakers to offer their receivers as optional hardware; the broadcasters plan to charge about $10 a month for their subscription services.  

You can order a built-in video entertainment system, complete with VCR, on the Chrysler Town & Country minivan. Chevrolet tosses in video games on the Warner Brothers Edition Venture van. Direct satellite-to-car video broadcasts are under development, notes eGM's Hogan. (GM owns DirecTv's parent company, Hughes Electronics.) The biggest problem in developing this technology is devising an antenna that can hold on to a signal while maneuvering twisty roads. Look for services to begin by mid-decade.  

One of the hottest high-tech accessories in Europe and Japan is the onboard navigation system--for good reason. Finding your way can be treacherous, especially in ancient cities, such as Tokyo, where even locals can get lost on labyrinthine back roads. Onboard navigation got off to a slow start in the United States. That is due in part to the price, which can run to $3,000 or more. But as prices plunge, demand is on the rise. The general consensus is that such systems will eventually dip below $1,000 and become as common as CD changers are today. It'll help that tomorrow's nav systems will offer what techies like to call a "killer app."  

Recent studies have shown that the nation's highways are becoming increasingly congested--something you could tell after a frustrating morning commute. Relief will soon be in hand, not in the form of wider roads, but real-time traffic alerts. Such services are already available in Japan and most of Western Europe. Using information from regional traffic-monitoring centers, a car will alert a driver to a tie-up ahead and plot an alternative route. It's likely to be at least mid-decade, or later, before similar in-car services are widely available in America, but you don't have to wait. Simply point your Web browser to sites like, or, and you can check traffic conditions before you head for work in the morning.  

You probably don't know much about the ancient Viking king, Bluetooth, but you'll be hearing his name a lot in the near future because it's been adopted for a new technical standard for electronics. Bluetooth is a passive radio frequency system that links any compatible device, such as Ericsson's new R520 phone, to a compliant car or truck. How might the system work? Say you're paged on your Bluetooth-compliant beeper. The number would be displayed on your digital dashboard and you could then tell your voice-operated phone to return the page, looking up the number in the personal data assistant tucked into your briefcase.  

Slip inside the Buick LaCrosse concept car, and you simply tell it to close the door. Indeed, you can operate almost everything but the gas pedal by voice control. Such technology is already showing up on the road. The Jaguar S-Type has a sophisticated voice activation system that recognizes dozens of commands for its audio, climate and cellular phone systems. It can decipher even the most heavily accented English. Improved software will recognize a range of accents and use a concept called "word spotting" to recognize commands buried in normal speech.  

It's all about developing the safest "man-machine interface," says Robert Theis, market development manager for Temic Automotive of North America. Moving a mouse to log on to the Internet while you're driving is unsafe. Simply using a cell phone can be risky, according to a recent study by the University of Toronto. It found that while making calls, drivers have four times the normal accident rate--the electronic equivalent of having a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent.  

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