Image: Steve Ballmer and Alan Mulally
Rick Wilking  /  Reuters
Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Steve Ballmer and Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Alan Mulally called developments in their joint in-car Sync system game-changers in automotive technology.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 1/9/2009 5:35:40 PM ET 2009-01-09T22:35:40

LAS VEGAS — Coming up: the iCar?

For the second straight year, the International Consumer Electronics Show is devoting one of its three gargantuan exhibit halls to automotive technology, reflecting the exploding interest in in-car electronics. And while the biggest media campaign was launched by Ford Motor Co. — once again the only one of the Big Three carmakers to show up here — the real pacesetter appears to be a company that isn’t here at all: Apple Inc.

Makers of satellite navigation systems, earsplitting audio components and computerized cockpits jam the North Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, showing off few new technologies but promoting significant upgrades to established product lines. A hefty proportion of those products are either touting integration with Apple’s blockbuster iPod and iPhone or trumpeting their adoption of iPhone-like capabilities.

Even Ford, which unveiled several major upgrades to the popular Sync navigation/entertainment system it developed with Microsoft Corp., said it was building in the capacity to accept iPhone-like third-party applications. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC News.)

As you might expect, CES is bristling with in-car iPhone docks, charging systems and connection hardware. But some exhibitors are going further, pushing iPod-like touch-screen interfaces, a few even integrating multi-touch technology like the iPhone’s.

Companies so far have not dived into full multi-touch abilities — which allow iPhone uses to “pinch” and “spread” the screen with their fingers — mainly for safety reasons. But demand is clearly growing for something like multi-touch to make using car navigation systems easier to use.

“Consumers have shown a growing preference for the multi-touch, gestural interface pioneered by the iPhone,” said Hiroyuki Mizukami, general manager of the Consumer Electronics Laboratory at Hitachi Ltd.

More and more, auto tech at CES comes emblazoned with Apple’s “Made for iPod” and “Compatible with iPhone” logos. Alpine Electronics Inc.’s iXA-W404, which is operated from a touch screen, can even play video directly from your iPod or iPhone.

Particularly popular are high-definition digital radio components that incorporate iTunes tagging, which lets drivers “tag” songs on HD Radio so they can buy them later on Apple’s iTunes music store. One manufacturer, Pioneer Electronics USA, is the first to market with a tagging system that even works with more than 450 standard over-the-air FM stations. The Pioneer systems retail for about $350.

Ford learns from Apple
Even though its partner in the Sync venture is Microsoft, Ford is unabashed in its admiration for the iPhone and its eagerness to adopt as many of its features as it can without running afoul of Apple’s lawyers.

Most significantly, Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally said Sync was being developed with open application programming interfaces, or APIs, allowing mobile companies to create third-party applications for the system. The experience would be very similar to the one iPhone users have when they download apps from iTunes.

Besides offering an intuitive interface closely resembling Apple’s, Ford’s decision to adopt an open system will save it a great deal of money, an important consideration for a company that has gone hat in hand to the government for financial assistance. All Ford will have to do is write the APIs; conception and creation of the actual applications would be spread around to third parties — along with the development costs.

Ford and Microsoft drew attention with other upgrades in what they are calling Sync 3.0. Voice recognition is being threaded throughout the program, and Ford said it was also adding mobile synchronization, theoretically allowing drivers to control their iPhone apps through the control buttons on the car’s steering wheel.

In-car Internet drives development
The idea is to work with consumer technology companies to streamline development and make integration of new products more efficient. Eventually, Mulally said, car owners would be able to “download” upgrades and applications directly to their cars, without needing a technician to touch anything.

“We are a car company, but we are learning to act like an electronics company,” Mulally said.

The newer iteration of Sync relies heavily on the Internet, mirroring the most widespread developments in automotive technology on display at CES.

Numerous makers of GPS navigation systems are promoting their products’ integration with the Internet. Industry pacesetter TomTom International BV announced its first two-way connected navigation device, the GO 740 LIVE, which it said would be available in the second quarter. The system adds features like Google’s local search engine, gas prices and weather data to TomTom’s current navigation and traffic service.

TomTom’s entry adds a major player to the connected GPS market, joining similar systems already in stores from companies like Insignia (Best Buy’s house brand), TeleNav Inc. and Clarion Technologies Inc.

Watch out for that yellow ghost!
Elsewhere, the usual array of louder, clearer audio systems is on display, making the automotive hall one noisy place. Amid the cacophony, you can find three highly intriguing new products.

AutoLiv Inc., which makes auto safety systems, joined with BMW in 2006 to create an advanced night-driving system called BMW Night Vision. This year, the companies have added the capacity to detect pedestrians. When a heat-detecting camera finds a heat source shaped like a person, the “Pedestrian Catcher” it highlights the figure in yellow on the dashboard.

Audiovox Corp., meanwhile, introduced a rear-seat entertainment system bringing Sony Corp.’s PlayStation2 to the car.

And Blaupunkt GmbH and miRoamer Co. have joined forces to deliver whet they’re calling the world’s first Internet car radio, delivering thousands of Web stations along with AM, FM and CD features. Users of the service, which is scheduled for the second half of the year, bookmark and access their favorites from the car through GSM cell service or on miRomer’s Web site.

“The move to develop an Internet car radio solution is a new paradigm and a real starting point for in-car digital media,” said Robert Demian, miRoamer’s head of global sales. Bloggers and tech journalists here had another description for it: satellite radio killer.

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