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Last Updated: Monday, 31 January, 2005, 13:07 GMT
Clever cars taking to the road
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

GM hydrogen car
By 2007 all US GM cars will be fitted with OnStar
You could fly to the moon in almost any modern car... in theory at least.

The amount of processing power in the average saloon far outweighs that of the Apollo 11 guidance computer that helped put men on the moon.

On average a modern car will have more than 20 separate processing units onboard - each one of which could leave the Apollo computer standing.

Increasingly cars are setting the pace when it comes to the amount of computer power and gadgets crammed into a small space.

It used to be only top of the line models that had all the extras, such as video players, that turned a car ride from a chore into a sojourn in a mobile living room.

And until recently adding such extras to a standard vehicle meant a premium on the drive-away price.

But back-seat entertainment consoles, navigation systems and wireless technologies are going to be offered as standard equipment by almost 75% of the 38 car makers questioned by the US Telematics Research Group (TRG).

Rear-seat entertainment, which includes DVD players, games consoles and music systems, are becoming increasingly standard on high-volume vehicles in the US, says said Phil Magney, principal analyst at TRG.

"It's a great way for them to make a bigger margin."

Driving force

This search for extra cash is perhaps no surprise given that the average margin on a new car sold today could be just a couple of hundred pounds.

Car technology is changing the driver experience
But car makers are not just looking to rear-seat gadgets to wring a little more cash from consumers, instead they want to make more sensible use of that latent computer power.

"It's cheaper for the car manufacturer's to give you the full, top-of-line, deluxe engine and cut it back a bit with software," says Martin Illsley, director of Accenture's research labs.

Instead of different models having different engines it would be the engine management software that determines how each vehicle performs.

Certainly, says Mr Illsley, car rental firms are interested in the idea of vehicles whose performance can be tailored to how much people pay.

Connect this engine management system up to a wireless communication system and with the swipe of a credit card you could turn your trundling rental into a rumbling roadster.

Parents, says Mr Illsley, might be interested in a vehicle that they can set the upper speed for, especially if they have teenage sons who are eager to get behind the wheel.

The combination of engine management system and wireless communications also gives governments a way to enforce speed limits that no-one can escape.

Mr Illsley said all the technology to do this is available now.

For instance, the Institute of Transport Studies at the University of Leeds is currently in the middle of a six-year project to evaluate an intelligent speed adaptation system that keep cars to a prescribed speed limit.

Car hackers

But, says Mr Illsley, once you have road signs that can control an engine and slow a car down "it's no longer a technical issue, it's a social issue about how we want to apply the rules".

Credit card
Soup up your car with a swipe of your card
General Motors uses a combination of engine management, wireless communications and GPS for its OnStar system that gives roadside assistance, and other services, to customers.

OnStar will be standard in GM vehicles by 2007 in the US.

Given that engine management systems are now ubiquitous it is no surprise that there are kits and software available that let those interested or skilled enough connect up a computer to their car and do a bit of hacking.

Increasingly mechanics are as happy to use a laptop to diagnose a car's problems as they are a socket set.

Derek Charters, senior consultant of advanced powertrain projects at the Motor Industry Research Association, says drivers are becoming passengers as cars take on more of the hard work.

Although the person behind the steering wheel feels like they are in control, actually the car will be doing lots of things without any prompting.

For instance, says Mr Charters, soon after ignition, cars manage acceleration to ensure that a dirty cloud of exhaust does not belch from the tail-pipe in breach of emission regulations.

This means that if you feel a bit lead-footed in the mornings, your car will compensate.

He says there are smart braking systems that watch the pattern of movements on the foot pedals and react faster if it senses a car is about to make an emergency stop.

The point about all these systems is that they operate without the driver's knowing.

Increasingly, says Mr Charters, it is ergonomics and the time it takes to educate drivers about innovations in cars that hold back the pace of change.

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