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When Knight Rider hit the TV airwaves in 1982, the idea of interacting with a computer in your car was far out science fiction. Now, almost three decades later, car companies and electronics manufacturers are rolling out devices that will soon make it commonplace.
Internet-connected cars were a big theme at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. It seems like a natural direction for technology as the average urban American spends the equivalent of 8.3 days a year commuting, according to the Rockefeller Foundation. With iPhones and other smartphones, as well as iPods, iPads and tablet PCs, people are used to having their technology with them.
"People used to ask how many horsepower a car had, now today the question they ask is, 'Does it connect to my iPod?'" said Sven Beiker, the executive director for the Center of Automotive Research at Stanford University.
In 2010, 4.5 million vehicles were sold with what are called telematics, information systems joined with telecommunications. IHS iSuppli, a market research firm focused on electronics, expects that number to increase fivefold to 22.7 million vehicles in 2015. The developing generation of Internet-connected cars might not banter with you the way KITT and David Hasselhoff did, but they are loaded with features to inform, entertain and, in some cases, protect.
The OnStar system has been a part of various General Motors vehicles for years. Now, owners of other makes can have OnStar thanks to an after-market rear mirror. Push one button and an operator provides you with driving directions. Another button initiates a 911 call. The product, which is coupled with an ongoing subscription, also includes such features as anti-theft and hands-free calls. There is a connectivity application that works via Bluetooth with your smartphone. It will allow you to speak a text message for OnStar to send. It also can convert incoming text messages to voice. You can also update your Facebook status hands-free.
Ford uses voice-recognition technology with its SYNC systems. They allow for text messages to be "read" to you, depending on your smartphone carrier. SYNC, varying by model, also includes such features as hands-free calling, connection to popular digital music players, navigation and social media updating.
A June 25 San Jose Mercury News article described how a 2011 Mini Cooper featured a blue display within the speedometer. A small joystick allowed the driver to make online choices that included Google, Facebook, Twitter and personalized news feeds.
Toyota has announced plans to work with Salesforce.com and Microsoft to establish Toyota Friend, a private social network. It is said to allow electric vehicle and plug-in hybrid users to interact with their cars like they would with friends on Facebook or Twitter. For example, the car would send a message saying "I need a charge."
Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley company specializing in electric vehicles, plans to sell a sedan next year that has a 17-inch touchscreen for navigation and entertainment.
Pandora hopes to change how we listen to the radio in our cars with their Pandora-embedded car stereos. When a song comes on, you rate it by pushing a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" button. The system then uses your picks to customize music to suit your tastes.
While some car makers are including their Internet-connected technology only in higher priced models, Ford is putting it in even more economical vehicles. Part of this is due to young people's desire for this technology.
"These people are going to be the most demanding and adept we've ever seen in terms of using these kinds of advices," Mike Van Nieuwkuyk, executive director of global vehicle research for J.D. Power and Associates, told the Mercury News. "They are used to being connected in every other portion of their lives. They grew up with the Internet and all these different apps, and that's normal for them to want to bring this into the vehicle.
Of course, there is the question of how much all of this technology could distract drivers – especially new ones. The Mercury News reported that BMW's systems, which are in Mini Coopers, only allow drivers to send tweets or status updates before the car is in motion. The Android and iPhone apps for Ford's SYNC system reportedly prevent drivers from making changes if the car is moving faster than five miles per hour.
In a Jan. 7 Marketing Pilgrim website post Cynthia Boris wondered if this is enough. She wrote about a BMW promotion that shows online auction site Ebay on a screen in a car and noted that she had been told the system does not allow front seat web surfing if the car is in motion.
"Even so, if I'm that worried about my auction that I need to pull over and go online, then I'm probably not paying a lot of attention to the road."
Perhaps we just need to wait a bit. Maybe one day distraction won't be an issue because our cars, like KITT in the 1980s, will be able to drive themselves.
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