In some ways, the auto industry and the computer industry seem worlds apart.

The first is often sluggish and may take four years to bring out a new product. The second is agile and seemingly eager to replace its product with something better and faster only months after it arrives in stores.

This dichotomy stands as no small obstacle as the two industries grapple with ways to bring modern communications tools, such as the Internet, to drivers. It will happen, but the question is: How soon, and by what means?

And what type of standards are necessary to prevent interference between these forthcoming in-vehicle communication tools and critical electronic vehicle systems such as antilock brakes or engine controllers?

This issue is sure to be a central theme at the 13th biennial Convergence Transportation Electronics Conference Oct. 19-21 at the Hyatt Regency in Dearborn, MI. The conference has been held since 1973.

Conference Chairman William F. Powers, vice president of research at Ford Motor Co., says automakers worldwide are discussing standards for in-vehicle communications, and that an announcement may well be made at this year's conference.

A standard communications infrastructure within vehicles is critical, because automakers and suppliers are pursuing various paths to achieve the same goal, says Reiner Emig, executive vice president of Robert Bosch Corp. His company, like many others, wants to provide in-vehicle Internet access.

"Everyone is pitching systems that are incompatible," he says. "We need some standardization across the various OEMs and suppliers . . . It's like TV. If everyone had a different TV signal, you would have no TV at all."

Take, for example, Delphi Automotive Systems, which has developed two separate Internet-capable vehicles because of the uncertainty as to which infrastructure will prevail.

Delphi signed on with Microsoft Corp. to develop a Windows CE based Saab 9-5 using Microsoft's AutoPC system. Meanwhile, Delphi's Network Vehicle, an SUV, resulted from a partnership with Microsoft rivals Netscape, Sun Microsystems and IBM using Sun's JavaSoft applications.

The two vehicles were parked just feet away from each other at Delphi's display at the Society of Automotive Engineers exhibition in Detroit in March. Still, their communications systems are incompatible. It's a gutsy move by Delphi, but can you blame them for playing both sides of the aisle?

Mr. Powers notes that the push for an external communications infrastructure within vehicles has been one of the most significant trends in automotive electronics since the last Convergence two years ago.

Another issue to be discussed is the need for a second, 42-volt electrical system to meet the demands of an ever-growing number of electrical and electronic features in vehicles. The present 12-volt system will be inadequate within about five years.

European automakers have recommended the additional 12-volt system, and their U.S. counterparts are considering adopting it as well.

Convergence '98 will offer 12 technical sessions exploring other issues such as the cost of vehicle electronics, the development of electric vehicles, security and privacy for in-vehicle Internet users, and the expectations of future vehicle buyers.

In addition, 75 automakers and suppliers will have displays at the show.

The exhibit space has been doubled this year because participating companies complained that they needed larger displays. A 22,000-sq.-ft. (2,000-sq.m) tent, accessible through the ballroom, will be set up north of the hotel to accommodate the larger exhibits.

The keynote speaker on the closing day of the conference is Alex J. Trotman, Ford Motor Co. chairman, president and CEO.

An estimated 3,400 people attended Convergence in 1996, and conference organizers are pushing for a 20% increase in attendance this year.