Jim Seida  /  MSNBC.com
The Alpine PMD-B100 Blackbird portable navigation unit has a 3.8-inch digital touch screen, a built-in traffic receiver and transmits audio and voice commands wirelessly to a car's factory radio.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
msnbc.com
updated 1/13/2006 8:18:02 AM ET 2006-01-13T13:18:02

DETROIT - There’s a lot of talk here at the 2006 North American International Auto Show about the shape, size and image of the latest and greatest cars from the world’s automakers. But what’s on the inside of these vehicles is important too.

One of the most sought-after add-on applications for cars is GPS-run navigation systems. Most vehicles shown here include those systems already built into their dashboards. However, one company — Alpine of Torrance, Calif. ­— is displaying a standalone navigation device that not only tells you the way to Albuquerque, it plays music too.

Alpine’s Blackbird is an aftermarket product — that is, it’s part of a growing market for vehicle parts and accessories to enhance performance.

The small black device is slightly smaller than the hand and works in a car, as a standalone device or docked in an optional car cradle that lets any of Alpine’s touch screen units display its navigation instructions.

There are plenty of in-car navigation devices now on the market, but only a few of them — including the Blackbird — also play music (MP3 or WMA files). The Blackbird goes even further. It also includes a tuner that receives real-time traffic conditions and then chooses routes to avoid traffic congestion — a service that will come in March this year. The device costs $750 and was released this month at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Increasingly, manufacturers are meeting a strong consumer demand for in-car navigation and entertainment systems, whether that means the latest navigation system, or DVD screens on a car’s backseat. And these high-end features are turning vehicles into four-wheeled entertainment centers.

For an extreme example of this, take the Nissan URGE concept sports car, shown here for the first time this week.

It includes a driver information monitor with five customizable screens and a built-in gaming system powered by Microsoft's Xbox 360. When the vehicle is at a standstill, its steering wheel and pedals can be used as game controls. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

Other in-car technologies are in abundance here in Detroit. Most automakers take a modest approach, including docking stations for mobile phones, satellite radio as standard and anything related to the coolest gadget of all — the iPod. The 2007 Jeep Compass, for example, shown to the media here this week, features an iPod dock and fold-down set of speakers for listening to music while tailgating.

Alpine has also jumped on the iPod bandwagon, displaying a car stereo that lets you plug in your iPod and manage and play songs on your playlists. BMW already uses the system; several other carmakers are expected to follow suit this year.

Whether portable or built into an automobile’s dashboard, in-car navigation systems that use satellite signals to pinpoint location or plot directions are becoming popular items for drivers who loathe losing their way.

They are coming as standard in high-end cars from manufacturers like BMW and Mercedes and can be bought as optional extras in many other makes.

The U.S. market for these devices is catching up with Japan and Europe, where they have been popular for some time.

Will Strauss, a principal analyst with Forward Concepts, an electronics market research firm in Tempe, Ariz., expects the number of GPS systems shipped for personal car owners to grow steadily from 5.5 million units in 2004 to an estimated 6.9 million in 2005, 8.7 million in 2006 and 16.2 million in 2009.

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