Digitized car knows the way

The Baltimore Sun

LAS VEGAS -- The Chevrolet Tahoe cruising around the parking lot of the convention center here is named Boss, because nobody's telling it what to do. The truck itself is in charge, steering around orange traffic cones to demonstrate its ability to navigate without human assistance.

It may sound futuristic, but much of the technology needed to make the Boss work - including Global Positioning System chips, radar, and digital video cameras - is in some of today's cars. The Boss is a prime example of how the world's carmakers are eagerly embracing digital solutions to cater to a new generation of drivers.

It's not just GPS systems and DVD players - but also built-in music servers, real-time traffic data, and systems that enable cars to parallel-park themselves. As a result, automakers are delivering vehicles that interact with iPods and cell phones, and let drivers control their favorite gadgets with voice commands.

Customers today want cars that deliver the kind of digital information and entertainment they take for granted at home, Ford Motor Co. spokesman Mark Schirmer said.

"If you're at your computer at home, you have instant access to a lot of information," he said. "There is an expectation the consumer now has that 'I've got to be connected all the time.'"

The people who pioneered many of these innovations aren't in Detroit. This week, they're in Las Vegas at the biggest annual convention for consumer technology, and for the first time Detroit has come to them in unprecedented numbers.

Sunday night's keynote speech by Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates featured a Lincoln MKX equipped with Microsoft's Sync entertainment control system, which uses wireless technology to give drivers voice-activated control of their cell phones and portable music players.

In many ways, automakers are playing catch-up. Traditionally it takes several years for a car company to add new features to vehicles. But in the consumer electronics business, new product cycles are measured in months.

Consumers have been tapping the automotive aftermarket, adding cheap stand-alone digital music players and portable GPS receivers like the TomTom to their cars.

Carmakers, who'd rather sell their own built-in versions and rake in the profits, are working on ways to integrate their GPS systems with the car's powertrain.

The GPS system would carry an electronic map of the road, said Richard Robinson, principal analyst for automotive electronics at iSuppli Corp. in London. If the car approached a turn at too high a speed or started to stray toward the center line, the vehicle could automatically apply the brakes while warning the driver.

"Tying all these features together, you'd struggle to get them onto a little TomTom," Robinson said.

A vehicle whose components talk to each other is just the beginning. Carmakers plan to build vehicles that communicate with each other, turning the highway into an asphalt Internet, and every car into a network server.

By adding cheap digital two-way radios, "your car will be able to talk to other cars around it," said Jim Gill, spokesman for Continental Automotive Systems of Auburn Hills, Mich. Each vehicle will share data from its own sensors with every other vehicle in range. This would generate minute-by-minute updates on road conditions, making it easier to avoid traffic jams.

With such a system, a tired driver or someone who would rather catch up on their reading might put their car into a specially designated lane, flip on the system, and let the computer navigate until they came to a road that required them to take over the wheel again.

This vehicle-to-vehicle networking is also a giant leap toward self-driving cars. The GM Boss test vehicle uses lots of costly sensor equipment to find its way. But GM engineer Bakhtiar Litkouhi said that if vehicles could talk to each other, they could find their way down the interstate with a pretty simple set of electronics.

Each car would have a GPS to determine its exact location, front and rear proximity sensors to keep a safe distance from other cars, and a radio to relay its data to the other vehicles. On a highway filled with such cars, each would automatically keep its proper distance and drive at a safe speed.

"This is going to be a very low-cost solution," said Litkouhi - potentially as low as $100 per car.

It's not a perfect solution, though. This system wouldn't be safe on surface streets, where it would encounter pedestrians or cyclists.

There are plenty of challenges ahead in making it work. The rolling network must be secure against data thieves, and protect the privacy of drivers who may not want people to know where they're going.

GM spokesman Scott Fosgard predicts that all the technical obstacles to a rolling highway network will be overcome in less than a decade.

"What we're not sure about is whether society will be ready," he said.

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