Auto Show Puts Networking in the Driver’s Seat

As motorists look toward spring break and the upcoming summer driving season, automakers are transforming the family car from simple transportation into rolling entertainment and information centers.

Tired of watching endless car commercials on TV? How about an entire TV channel brought to you by an auto maker? Whether chasing big game in Africa or rushing to the school softball game in the suburbs, Land Rover wants you to tune into their broadband TV channel, the first created by an auto maker.

“We intend to cover a wide range of extraordinary activities,” Steve Hobbs, editor of the Go Beyond Web site, said in a statement. The four-hour Go Beyond TV channel uses material from both Land Rover’s One Life magazine and six original content partners, including Discovery Channel, The Royal Geographical Society and Biosphere Expeditions.

Initially, both the Web site and TV channel will be seen at Land Rover dealerships and major auto shows, such as the New York Auto Show, which kicks off this weekend. Eventually, the car company hopes to make the TV channel available for download to Apple iPods or the Sony PSP.

The concept hopefully will expand the car maker’s image, according to Phil Popham, Land Rover’s managing director. The Web site and broadband TV product are designed to improve the dealership environment while driving more customers to the company’s online destination.

If watching broadband TV about your car isn’t enough, how about tapping into the Internet using a Wi-Fi connection from Scion’s latest concept car? Most car makers describe their autos as sexy, powerful or fun, but “menacing?” Scion’s new FUSE Sports Coupe has a “menacing presence” with headlamps that “glare at you”, all wrapped in dark undertones. For consumers not frightened away, the Scion is packed with video and networking wonders.

Video can be downloaded to the car and displayed on two 10.5-inch monitors on the front dash. Along with Wi-Fi connectivity, passengers can IM friends.

The FUSE’s drive-by-wire technology is part of a trend away from mechanical connections to autos powered as much by software as cables, according to Thilo Koslowski, a Gartner auto technology analyst.

While onboard DVD navigation systems have been available for some time, a number of companies, such as XM Satellite Radio and GM’s OnStar, are offering drivers real-time satellite navigation. XM NavTraffic GPS systems will be available in the Acura RDX, Infiniti G35 and Lexus LS sedans. The system is factory-installed already in all Acura RL and Cadillac CTS models.

XM NavTraffic delivers real-time traffic navigation for drivers in 31 U.S. markets. Along with continuous traffic information, drivers see a color-coded map indicating how fast traffic is moving on any route. The data comes from a mix of police reports, commercial traffic companies, road sensors and aircraft, according to XM Satellite.

Cars are evolving into ‘vehicle probes’ using radar, laser and satellite information to gauge traffic, according to Koslowski. And with such advances cars must process a greater amount and wider variety of data. An average auto contains 40 processors and keeps track of engine, audio, satellite, wireless and other input, the analyst said.

Due to the ratcheting up of data processing, a number of auto makers, mostly European, are creating mobile servers linked by fiber optics. BMW, Mercedes and Cadillac are just three companies experimenting with fiber optic communications, Koslowski said.

Acura’s RDX and BMW are just two of the latest auto manufacturers supporting the iPod. As iPods, phones, DVDs and CDs become as common as radios, car makers will move to device gateways which integrate the many gadgets.

With greater opportunity for driver distraction, auto makers are also investigating ways to lower the level of distraction, according to Koslowski. Among the possible solutions: speech controls, speed controls (some devices may not work if you are traveling over 50 mph, for instance) and haptic feedback where the steering wheel might vibrate to get your attention.

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