Autos' ties to electronics seen at gadget show

LAS VEGAS -- The deep bass sound vibrates your breastbone as you meander through a corner of the massive International Consumer Electronics Show. Someone is showing off car audio systems, but it feels like the vehicles themselves are announcing their beefy presence.

And why not? Cars and automotive technologies from start-ups and established aftermarket makers are abundant at this gadget show.

They're coming in such variety that they encapsulate many of the advances seen elsewhere at CES in cell phones, TVs, video games and wireless Internet networking.

For example, one theme at CES is the development of touch-screen and voice-activated controls for portable devices. Cars are showing that off, too, with systems that let people make phone calls, navigate, choose music and have e-mails read to them without fumbling for controls.

Or look how CES overall is highlighting the widening availability of Internet content. Autonet Mobile Inc. offers a small box for car trunks that takes a cellular broadband signal and uses Wi-Fi to relay it to portable computers in the car, so people can browse the Internet in the vehicle. And while the car is parked near a home wireless network, people can beam music and video content to it.

"The car is a lifestyle product," said Sterling Pratz, Autonet Mobile's chief executive officer. "It's not just a car anymore."

The goal of all this stuff is to keep drivers better informed and their passengers entertained. But no one seems to have a great answer to the question of whether adding more technological choices to moving vehicles will increase the danger of driver distraction.

Automobiles have had technological accouterments since the advent of the car radio. In- vehicle technologies are a $10 billion market, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

But the auto and the electronics industries have not been closely linked. Attempts in the 1990s at connecting cars to the Internet flopped.

One complicating factor has been that car makers design for a much longer future than gadget makers.

Obsolete too soon

So automakers that select particular electronics might get locked into formats or functions that are obsolete by the time the car makes it to showroom floors. Aftermarket vendors often have filled the gap.

However, factory-installed technologies are getting more powerful. One example is the way Ford Motor Co. has teamed with Microsoft Corp. on Sync, a voice-activated communication and entertainment system.

One reason for automakers' increasing comfort is that powerful computers now found in cars can get software updates fired in by wireless networks, letting vendors fix bugs and keep features up to date, said Erik Goldman, president of Hughes Telematics Inc. His company is expected to begin outfitting Chrysler and Mercedes cars with a navigation, entertainment and diagnostics service in 2009.

And these days, automotive electronics are more closely integrated with standard Web technologies.

For example, the Hughes Telematics system will include a personal Web portal that lets people lock and unlock their car doors remotely, plan routes, check their auto's emissions and engine status, select music play-lists and even monitor their vehicle's location.

Last year, OnStar began working with so drivers could plan their routes online and send them to the car.

At a CES panel on the interplay between cars and electronics, Eckhard Steinmeier, gen- eral manager of BMW's "Connected Drive" initiative, showed a commercial in which a woman says she wants to investigate sushi options. So she heads out of her house, in the rain, to do a Google search from her Beemer's dashboard.

Car technology might be catching up to the state of gadgetry today, but it's not at the vanguard.

But there is one sure sign of vigorous cross-pollination: Some automotive technologies at CES are described with some of the Web's most painful jargon. Has anyone really ever said they want more "infotainment" in their car?