'Cars aren't just for driving any more'

Advances in digital technology are set to transform the automotive world, making cars safer, more efficient and more fun to drive, says General Motors (GM) chairperson Rick Wagoner.

From voice-activated control and entertainment systems to new power systems and even cars that drive themselves, Wagoner’s speech at last week’s Consumer Electronics World, the world’s largest technology fair, signified how fast cars are integrating electronic gadgets.

“It is all part of the migration of technology out of the home,” said Jenny Paretti, a spokesperson for the Consumer Electronics Association, which for the first time devoted an entire hall to in-car technology. “Consumers have an average of 25 consumer electronics in their homes. The natural migration is from the home to the car.”

Signifying the new love affair between the car and the computer, Wagoner’s was the first-ever keynote address by a big automaker at the show.
He used his appearance to notch another first: the first carmaker to unveil a prototype vehicle—the Cadillac Provoq Fuel Cell concept car—at the show that usually hypes television, computers and portable gadgets.

The car made even the monster televisions unveiled at CES seem small. Powered both by hydrogen and an electric battery, the car can get 480km per hydrogen fuel-up. It will feature other green technologies such as a solar panel on the roof to power interior accessories including lights, energy-saving tyres from Michelin and recycled and recyclable materials used to create the vehicle.

“The future of the auto is bright and increasingly electronic,” Wagoner said. “All the factors point to a convergence of the automotive and electronics industries that is literally transforming the automobile.”

GM also showed off a self-driving robot car in the convention parking lot, and Wagoner predicted that such technology would come to market in a decade.

“Autonomous driving means that some day you could do your email, eat breakfast, do your make-up and watch a video while commuting to work,” Wagoner said. “In other words, you could do all the things you do now while commuting to work, but do them safely.”

BMW also had a major presence at the show, with a mock-up of a Formula One pit lane to showcase its technology, while Ford and Microsoft trumpeted their Sync system, which has been a hit since its introduction a year ago. According to Ford, cars with Sync sell twice as fast as those without.

But it was the concept of the car as a mobile living room that seemed to dominate. Satellite radio company Sirius unveiled a system to allow passengers to watch live TV in cars, while hundreds of companies touted massive in-car TV and audio systems, all of them capable of grabbing the hottest tracks and videos from users’ iPods.

With the spread of broadband wireless technology, these systems will become even more powerful, capable of downloading tracks and movies directly from the internet.

“In the same way that cellphones aren’t just for talking and TVs aren’t just for watching, cars aren’t just for driving any more,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupiter Research. “It’s a way for the car companies to talk to a different kind of consumer, not a consumer looking at different anti-lock brakes, but at how can I integrate my car and my cellphone together.”—Sapa-dpa

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