Data drive

Jan 17, 2001 at 12:00 am

In the future, drivers will still arrive in strange cities, tired and wanting a decent meal. What to do?

Well, if we’re driving any one of a number of luxury cars, say a Lexus or an Acura, current technology points to a comforting road up ahead.

We’ll just touch the screen on the car’s dashboard, or ask the voice-recognition system where to go, and the car will take care of us. After consulting with a global positioning satellite, its onboard voice system will guide us to the nearest restaurant, hotel and even ATM. It will get us safely through the twists and turns of an unfamiliar city’s streets, as though we’d known all along exactly where to go.

The technology sounds both familiar (remember “Knight Rider”?) and futuristic, but it’s currently available in a handful of high-end vehicles. The technologies aren’t anywhere near as sophisticated as they will surely become, but expect that to change as consumer demand for more wired driving time increases along with automakers’ technical ability to keep us online, all the time, even when we’re doing 70 mph on the interstate.

For now, here’s a sample of what’s out there.

Guiding lite

Acura has installed touch-screen information displays in its highest-end vehicles, the RL and TL. These DVD-based navigation systems connect with GPS satellites to pinpoint your exact location. Then, they use that information to provide turn-by-turn directions to the nearest ATM, restaurant or hotel, and can also be programmed with your own favorite locations.

But the information needs to be regularly updated with downloads from new versions of the DVD, and — the other major drawback — you’re at the mercy of the DVD’s programmers when it comes to selection. Not every cool little café or corner pub is likely to be included, which means you’ll find yourself at a lot of places other RL and TL drivers might also go.

Plus, the information currently covers only 60 major U.S. metropolitan areas, so if you find yourself really in the middle of nowhere, you might be driving a long way before you get anywhere the car recommends.

And since touch-screen technology requires the driver to pay attention to something other than the road ahead, it could present a safety hazard. Other on-board information systems are designed to respond to your voice, and announce your directions, restaurant selections and even stock quotes over the car’s stereo system.

No strings attached

Wireless technology is now at a point where you can download information from the Internet onto your cell phone, your Palm device, or even your car. Well, to a certain degree.

Delphi Automotive Systems is preparing to launch in-car wireless devices as an option for Fords (more on that later), and the GM-related OnStar system has been making wireless headway for several years now in upper-end GM vehicles. (It’s expected to be available in select Lexus, Audi and Honda models later this year.)

The OnStar system takes advantage of wireless technology to provide drivers with voice-activated information, from weather and traffic conditions to news, sports scores and stock quotes.

However, wireless technology isn’t at a point yet where you are able to access the entire Web from a wireless unit. Until it is, you’re stuck with the information you can get from just a few major sources.

Goes both ways

Having a wired car might be a fun frill for those who can’t bear to spend a moment off the information highway, but there are other reasons for your car to be in touch with the rest of the world.

Future models of the Peugeot Citroen Xsara Picasso, a small minivan currently available in Europe, will have wireless systems that can check the car’s fluid levels and functions, then relay that information to mechanics so they can diagnose problems while you’re driving. And, since you can track the vehicle’s location via GPS system, it can be located and shut off remotely, making stolen cars and quick getaways a thing of the past.

Fun times

We’re not at a point yet where you’ll shop for your car in the same way you might shop for a computer, taking into account hard drive capacity and processor speed just as you consider its fuel economy and safety.

In the meantime, automakers are inventing stopgap gizmos that will probably seem ridiculously clunky in just a few years.

Take Phatnoise players, for example. Planned as an option in new Fords later this year, these devices are, essentially, MP3 players that you can hook up to your car’s stereo in much the same way as you would pop in a multi-CD cartridge. But you still have to download your MP3s from your home or laptop computer onto the device, which means you might as well store your MP3s on a CD and play them in the old-fashioned CD player.

Speaking of plug-and-play, MobileAria announced last October that its “open platform” interface will be available early this year. Its dashboard system (you plug it into the cigarette lighter, apparently) combines the “integrated hardware” of Delphi’s Mobile Productivity Center, a cellular phone and a Palm device to keep drivers connected during the thousands of hours we spend in our cars each year.

Sounds fun. But naturally, the costs will mount. Not only will you have to pay for your cellular airtime when you make a call from your car, but you’ll have to subscribe to Palm’s wireless service as well.

Sure, you might save in the long run, by knowing a direct route and not wasting gas getting lost. But you’ll save even more with a good map and a phone book onboard at all times.

Alisa Gordaneer is MT features editor. E-mail [email protected]