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Driving on the information highway

Carmakers are developing more ways for drivers and passengers to be entertained while on the road.
/ Source: Financial Times

Developments in in-car entertainment could put an end to cries of “are we nearly there yet?” from bored children in the back seat. If carmakers have their way, the youngsters may never want to get out of the car again.

TECHNOLOGY HAS MOVED on since the days a car radio was considered a luxury. Carmakers and manufacturers now offer a host of gadgetry from DVD players, surround sound systems, multi-CD changers to MP3-based digital music stored on hard discs.

Some cars include LCD screens in the back that can run DVDs and computer games and have infra-red cordless stereo headphones.

But the next wave of in-car technology is about more than keeping children happy.

“The vision is for a truly connected car, where people can access information from home to the office and then to their car,” says Peter Wengert, marketing manager for Microsoft’s automotive business.

In April, Microsoft launched its fifth version software platform for automotive suppliers and manufacturers. The system provides hands-free mobile phones, real-time traffic updates and access to web services such as news, weather and sports. It can even diagnose what is wrong with your car. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

“With Bluetooth technology it will be possible to keep your cell phone in your pocket and place and receive calls from your car,” says Mr. Wengert.

He says in-car navigation systems could soon do more than take a driver from A to B, by providing information on ways to avoid traffic hot spots or finding the cheapest place to buy petrol.

The U.S. Consumer Electronics Association, which tracks growth in car entertainment installed after the car is bought, says there has been a shift from aftermarket sales of entertainment equipment as carmakers begin to offer it themselves — and not just on luxury models.

The association says aftermarket installation of in-car entertainment in the U.S. is down 7 per cent this year. However, it says the market for monitors, DVDs and navigation units is strong. The aftermarket sales were this year worth $242 million. It expects sales in the U.S. to recover as consumers upgrade to the latest technology.

Satellite radio producers are also a growing market in the U.S. XM Satellite Radio, the country’s biggest provider, this week said it had 929,648 subscribers, receiving 101 digital channels of music, sport, comedy, and kids’ entertainment.

The benefits for consumers are a wide choice of radio stations and an uninterrupted signal. And because it comes via satellite rather than a mast, subscribers can drive across the country without ever having to change station.

So far consumers in Europe have tended to lag behind their Asian and U.S. counterparts. Last year Toyota launched its Will-Cypha car in Japan. The system provides almost constant access to the internet, while the on-board karaoke system has proved a hit with Japanese consumers.

Meanwhile, European consumers have tended to demand better in-car navigation system and some degree of entertainment.

Colin Woodward, e-Vehicle product manager for Sony in the U.K., says about 60 percent of its business comes from sales of CD players but the next step is to “extend your living room into your vehicle” — and that means providing a flat screen TV and computer games.

With so much to do in the car, the worry is safety. Manufacturers say they are sensitive to the issue — certain screen functions are automatically switched off once the handbrake is released.

The Automobile Association says anything with the potential to distract a driver is a concern. From December 1, new legislation in the UK will mean driving while holding a mobile phone will be illegal.

Industry experts say it is naive to suggest that safety is simply about banning mobile phones. With so many devices on offer and ever more advanced technology on the way, drivers could be faced with many more distractions.

© The Financial Times Ltd 2003. "FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times.