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Automakers ready to cash in on technology

With sales of electronic gear for cars expected to top $12 billion this year, automakers are clueing in to the demand for high-tech features.
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Since the International Consumer Electronics Show opened Monday, the buzz surrounding automotive technology has been very real, and very loud, as a Formula One race car speeds around a tiny track outside the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Carmakers and manufacturers of electronics for them believe they have a reason to make noise. The Consumer Electronics Association projects that the market for car tech will exceed $12 billion in 2008, having doubled in just five years.

CES 2008 is devoting more than a quarter-million square feet to car tech, meaning the show of automotive technology alone this week reaches almost half the size of the critically important North American International Auto Show.

Even though the giant Detroit auto show opens next week, the convergence of automobiles and high-tech products is nearing critical mass, and the head of one of the Big Three automakers detoured to Las Vegas to deliver a keynote address, the first time an automaker has gotten one of the marquee speaking slots in the history of CES.

“Our intent is to bring you the future of transportation,” Richard Wagoner, chief executive of General Motors Corp., said Tuesday evening. “We’ll do this by working more closely than ever with the consumer electronics industry, using electronics to reinvent the automobile.”

‘Lessons for the automotive industry’
In terms of the impact it hopes to make, GM is flooring it this week. Ahead of Wagoner’s address, it unveiled a prototype of the first “driverless car,” a modified version of the sport-utility Chevrolet Tahoe called the Boss, which the company hopes to have on the road within a decade. The Boss is meant to navigate traffic-choked streets without any human involvement, using cameras, radar and lasers.

Tuesday, Wagoner drove onto the stage in a Chevrolet Volt, an electric car that he said was on track to reach the market by 2010. Then he introduced an entirely new zero-emissions vehicle, dubbed the Provoq, a Cadillac designed to run 300 miles on a single charge of its hybrid hydrogen fuel cell/electric motor.

The emphasis on electric power is an important part of GM’s strategy, Wagoner said in an interview Tuesday with CNBC.

“We really see electronics playing a huge role as we endeavor to reduce our reliance on foreign oil,” he said, citing GM’s experience with the OnStar navigation system, which it introduced 10 years ago.

OnStar “taught us that the electronics industry has some lessons for the automotive industry,” he said.

GPS systems go for whiz-bang
If automakers are ready to embrace high technology, there are more than enough companies here eager to supply them. The automotive hall is filled with everything from new computer-driven safety equipment to wireless high-end audio and video systems to sophisticated hands-free communications gadgets.

But the big category is navigation using the Global Positioning System satellite array. The CEA projected final 2007 sales to be up 41 percent, to seize nearly a quarter of all car technology sales.

The biggest names in the industry are showing off advanced interactive GPS systems that promise real-time data, ditching the stand-alone, pre-loaded GPS module in favor of always-connected satellite and cell-network navigation systems, some of them voice-activated.

The sophistication of the newer systems has drawn computing giants Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. into the game.

Google, for example, is partnering with Magellan Navigation Inc., on a voice-recognition system that they said would eventually handle contacts and calendar entries.

Microsoft, meanwhile, announced that Sync, a Bluetooth system developed with Ford Motor Co. to allow wireless use of mobile devices like phones and MP3 players in the car, would be upgraded to automatically call 911 whenever an airbag deployed. ( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Microsoft’s MSN Direct service is also wrapped into some of the new systems. Garmin Ltd. said it would introduce the voice-recognition Nuvi 880 later this year, delivering real-time data integrated with Windows Live.

Two-way data streams promised
Other systems, such as one from the French company Mobile Devices, incorporate real-time data in the other direction, collecting information from users on the road to warn drivers of traffic snarls and to alert them to available parking space and the lowest nearby gas prices.

But the device getting the most attention is one the CIA would admire.

Auto Page Inc. introduced a GPS alarm system called C3, which won CES’s Best of Innovations award for in-car navigation. C3 integrates a module allowing owners to control their vehicles from anywhere in the world they can find a compatible GSM cell phone signal.

Auto Page is touting C3 as a way to monitor a car’s security and to start it remotely, but CES participants seeing it for the first time are already dreaming up other uses. Most popular, it seems, is the chance to track your teenager’s driving habits — with C3, you’ll be able to confront Junior with the text message proving he was speeding when he sneaked out last night.