Cars get PCs despite safety concerns

Published: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 27, 2006 at 11:43 p.m.
Detroit is invading one of the last PC-free zones: your car.
In an era when people can check e-mail or browse the Web while doing everything from grocery shopping to lying on the beach, behind the wheel of a car has remained one of the few places where it just didn't happen. Over the years, auto makers have tried to introduce computers in cars, but they never really caught on with consumers.
Now, both automakers and car-accessory companies are making a renewed push with products designed to allow drivers to do everything they can do on a desktop PC - word processing, Internet surfing, e-mail - while sitting in the driver's seat. Screens can be mounted anywhere from near the dashboard to the back seat. While many models are meant to be installed in the dash and replace the radio entirely, car makers are betting more on tablet computers that aren't as integrated into the car or on features like larger consoles, trays and Internet connections for storing and operating laptops.
By this spring, Ford Motor Co. will offer as a dealer-installed accessory for its F-series trucks a tablet computer that mounts into a docking station on the floor (the computer is about at cup-holder level), is powered by the vehicle's battery, and contains enough memory to store PowerPoint presentations, blueprints and thousands of MP3 songs. Ford developed the product in partnership with Stargate Mobile LLC and Microsoft Corp.
Companies that sell auto accessories are also ramping up their in-car personal computer options. Audiovox Corp.'s Jensen brand has released two car PCs under the new ''Intellicar'' line that will go on sale this spring. One model, priced at $3,499, is meant to be installed in the dash and replaces the car's radio. It also comes with navigation, the ability to perform PC functions like Internet browsing and a seven-inch flip-out touch screen. This year, KVH Industries Inc., in partnership with Microsoft, plans to offer a mobile Internet receiver that will bring broadband connections to existing in-car TV and video screens and also create a wireless hot spot in the car for laptops.
With the domestic car industry in turmoil, automakers are looking for new ways to connect with car buyers. A growing number of consumers already have or want in-car navigation systems, DVD players, MP3 music players and other devices. Adding functions like Internet access and word processing is a logical next step, especially for younger drivers who are accustomed to on-the-go technology.
But the concept of putting computers in cars, often called telematics, has been tried unsuccessfully many times before. In 1998, Microsoft and Clarion Corp. of America offered an in-car computer called the AutoPC that was never widely adopted in the U.S. Since then, car companies have been reluctant to integrate PCs into their operating systems in the U.S. because of reliability and other concerns.
Instead, they have focused on navigation, entertainment and wireless systems that provide specific information rather than Web-browsing capabilities.
Also, the new systems can be expensive - in the $3,000 range or higher - and have some frustrating features, such as small screens that require squinting to read an email and small on-screen keyboards. Wireless keyboards generally cost extra.
Then there is the obvious safety issue of driving while surfing the Web. ''There would be visual distractions as well as manual distractions if you are punching the keys or otherwise handling the device,'' says Anne McCartt, vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Such safety concerns are causing more states to implement laws to prevent new technology like DVD players and laptop screens from distracting drivers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver distraction is related to about 25 percent of automobile-related fatalities annually.
For safety reasons, many functions of the new car PCs with screens in the front seat work only when the vehicle is parked and stopped. For instance, users of Ford's new computer product, called FordLink, which has a touch screen, navigation and Internet-connectivity, can't search the Web when a vehicle shifts into drive and the computer is mounted in its dock. Passengers, however, can use the device when it's not mounted.
Beyond the safety concerns, other hurdles for consumers remain. Since in-car computers aren't widespread, some installers might not know how to install or repair them. Fixing a broken computer in a car in most cases is much like repairing nonfactory stereo equipment: If the computer breaks, you could just pull the computer out and get it serviced.
But industry watchers say the market may be more receptive for the new generation of in-car computing. According to a November survey from CNW Marketing Research, 11 percent of people under 30 who intend to buy a new car within six months want access to email and Internet in their cars, compared with 6.5 percent in November 2004 who wanted access to email and 2 percent in November 2003.
Adam Kosofsky, a 32-year-old who works for a machine-parts maker in Leonardo, N.J., had a computer installed in his Jeep Cherokee so he can have a computer when he visits his house in the Catskills and be able to check how his stocks are performing when he's running errands, among other reasons.
At the 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit this month, Kia Motors Corp. unveiled a design concept of a ''Soul'' crossover utility vehicle with a fully functioning notebook computer that slides out from the instrument panel. Kia says production models may come with similar slider trays to hold computers. ''People don't necessarily want technology built into cars as much as they want access to technology in cars,'' says Ian Beavis, Kia's vice president of marketing.
Among other car makers, BMW AG's Rolls-Royce launched a new ''computer interface'' option for its 2006 models that provides a power supply and place to set the computer for back-seat work. DaimlerChrysler AG's Maybach brand launched an optional business package for its 2006 57 S model that includes a $9,900 wireless Internet router and a $2,900 PC-storage compartment. Elsewhere, Icon Enterprises International Inc. is selling an in-car PC that also acts as a navigation system, radio and DVD player and other companies that have come out with in-car PC products in recent months or plan to later this year include MP3Car Inc., Advanced Mobile Technologies LLC's iMobile brand, Maxan Co. and MimoUSA.
But the concept of putting computers in cars, often called telematics, has been tried unsuccessfully many times before.
The concept of putting computers in cars has been tried unsuccessfully many times before.

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