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Last Updated: Monday, 1 March, 2004, 15:58 GMT
Hi-tech vroom powers future cars
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor

The car is evolving into a hi-tech beast packed with computing power, designed to look after every whim of driver and passengers.

BMW 5 Series
Hi-tech, but at high cost
Vehicles already have dozens of small computers, keeping an eye on everything from petrol consumption to suspension.

But future models could also come with smart navigation systems, wireless internet connections and top notch audio systems.

For those with the cash, the car of the future is on sale today in the shape of BMW's 5 series or Honda's Accura TL.

Included in the technology packed into the $40,000 BMW is a display which floats information such as speed and navigation onto the windshield.

As for Honda's $35,000 auto, it has a voice-controlled navigation system, as well as the first DVD audio system built into a car.

Avoiding jams

"It is actually not distracting, everything that is in this car is to have the exact opposite effect," says Honda's Brett Thacher.

The Accura has a voice-controlled navigation system
Speak your destination
"You don't have to take your eyes off the road at all. As far as the buttons are concerned, they are all on the steering wheel and a lot of it is voice-activated so all I have to do is talk to the car."

The Accura uses Bluetooth wireless technology that can talk to a mobile phone with the same system, which means the driver need not take their hands off the wheel to make a call.

Satellite navigation systems are still something that is only seen in high-end or special edition cars. But these could come as standard in the next three to seven years, says David Martell, boss of UK company Trafficmaster.

The firm offers a system called SmartNav, which combines satellite navigation with information about roadworks, accidents and delays. This is compiled at the company's headquarters and transmitted to a car, rather than by a costly onboard computer.

"You can just jump in the car, press a button and the car tells you where to go, keeps you away from the traffic jams and alerts you to speed cameras," says Mr Martell.

Black box recorder

Navigation systems are an example of how computing technology is gradually encroaching into automobiles. Some car repair shops are even starting to stock hard drives alongside other spare parts.

Honda Accura TL
Demand for navigation, real-time traffic information and in-car entertainment is definitely picking up
Carl Franklin, technology analyst
"Every car is going to have a disk drive," says Ian Vogelesang, vice president of Hitachi Global Storage Technologies.

The drive could be used as the core of a car's entertainment system, storing hours of music and video. Or it could be combined with sensors and mapping technology to keep track of every twist and turn.

"Once you have a hard drive for GPS navigation and the entertainment system, why not have cheap cameras at the corner of a car to keep you in a lane?" says Mr Vogelesang. "The hard drive then forms a sort of black box recorder."

Auto entertainment

Computing technology could also make long, dull car journeys a thing of the past. DVD systems built into a headrest are now available, for the viewing pleasure of those in the back seat.

Audiovox DVD headrest
One way to keep the children quiet
But at $1,800, this can be an expensive way to keep the children quiet on long journeys. A cheaper option is a portable DVD with built-in speakers, which plugs into the cigarette lighter.

"We've noticed that the demand for navigation, real-time traffic information and in-car entertainment systems is definitely picking up," says Carl Franklin, technology analyst at Bridgewell Securities.

"These are systems that help to reduce the stress of driving, especially on long journeys, so they will be the first wave of computing products to be fitted in cars."

Safe driving

Future cars are likely to come packed with all sorts of gadgets, from a satellite TV tuner to a voice-activated GPS navigation system.

But Mr Franklin urges caution about the trend to put more and more technology in vehicles.

"Voice recognition technology has improved to the point where it could easily be used in cars and head-up displays might find their way into high-end models.

"The manufacturers will have to be certain they aren't too distracting."

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