Computers take the wheel as the Auto industry turns to electronic bells and whistles

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.  

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.  

The industry hopes to use advanced electronics to improve automotive safety. The Advanced Restraint System in Ford's redesigned 2000 Taurus (and the Mercury Sable) "allows the car to think about the crash situation and react accordingly," explains Steve Kozak, Ford's occupant safety systems manager. Sensors detect whether front-seat occupants are wearing their seatbelts, and just how close to the steering wheel the driver is sitting. Crash severity sensors measure the forces involved in a collision, then decide how aggressively the two-stage front airbags will deploy--if they're triggered at all. "No longer are airbags a one-size-fits-all technology," Kozak boasts. In a slow-speed crash, the bags inflate more slowly, reducing the risk of inadvertent injury.  

Mercedes' BabySmart system will disable the right-side airbag if there's a specially equipped child carrier in the passenger seat. And GM is developing a seat sensor smart enough to not only tell the difference between an adult male, a small woman and a child--but where they are sitting. If they're leaning forward at the time of the crash, the system will reduce the force of the airbag, or perhaps disable it entirely.  

Electronic controls help today's cars stop better and maintain control even if they're going a bit too fast around an icy corner. A Mercedes adaptive cruise control system will let you set a desired speed, then adjust it automatically to maintain a safe distance in traffic. This radar-guided system, dubbed Distronic, debuted in Europe last year, and made the jump across the Atlantic this fall for model year 2001. Jaguar intends to offer similar systems soon afterwards.  

Even the lowly tire, an oft forgotten component in the rush to modernize automobiles, could get caught up in the electronic revolution. German-based Continental's Sidewall Torsion Sensor, or SWT, might look like a conventional tire, but it's imprinted with magnetic stripes. As the tires turn, they deform slightly, depending on whether the car is driving in a straight line, turning or skidding. Those changes can be picked up by an inexpensive sensor, then used to control the car's brakes, engine or electronic suspension.  

"Within a decade," high-tech systems ranging from navigation to satellite radio to Auto PCs will be installed in at least one-third of all cars sold in the United States, says Ron Knockeart, vice president of Intelligent Transportation Systems driver information systems for the supplier Siemens Automotive. The Roland Berger study predicts telematics alone will account for $12 billion in annual hardware sales by 2008 and $30 billion in service and other fees. These are the more conservative estimates.  

Just how far might tomorrow's cars go? A stretch of Interstate 15 near San Diego has been equipped with transmitters that communicate with specially equipped cars. They can drive automatically, letting occupants work, read, even catch a quick snooze. By the middle of the century, such vehicles might become the norm on the nation's highways.   Welcome to the revolution.

Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an auto e-zine on the Internet at www.TheCarConnection.Com.