Do consumers really want cars that don't need keys to open the locks or turn on the ignition? Are they really interested in car and truck interiors becoming more like airplane cockpits, with joysticks instead of steering wheels? Is changing your radio station or the climate control while driving so distracting that it should be done with voice-activated technology instead?

Fifteen years ago car buyers rejected talking cars that informed them their door was ajar. Will they now fall in love with cars that listen only about as well as their teenage children?

These are major questions facing automakers and suppliers as advancing digital technology creates a long list of new products and features they can offer, but may have questionable value to car buyers who are notoriously fickle when it comes to adopting technology. Those who can't even program their own VCRs are afraid of it. Others wonder if they'll be able to give up well-established habits, some of which seem to be embedded in our DNA.

Take the pocket pat, for example. A subtle movement used most often by males of the species, it's done to ensure one's car keys are in the right place, and not forgotten or locked in the trunk.

David Z. Ladd, communications project manager for Siemens Automotive LP, unconsciously performs this maneuver as he approaches a Lincoln Navigator equipped with the company's Passive Start/Entry System (PASE).

The irony is, PASE makes keys, well, passe.

Called “Keyless-Go” where it debuted in Europe on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, it replaces keys with a card that automatically unlocks the vehicle's doors. Once inside, the card again does its thing and the driver simply pushes a button to start the engine.

“It's force of habit,” Mr. Ladd says. “We are programmed to insert a key.”

PASE technology will be available on designated ’02 Cadillac models. Similar technology will appear on at least one other General Motors Corp. product in model year ’03.

Moments later, Mr. Ladd concludes a demonstration of a fingerprint ignition system. It involves touching a screen. Then the driver's print is read.

If he or she is an authorized operator — the engine turns over. No key required.

But in another nod to Darwin, Mr. Ladd instinctively reaches for the steering column and gropes for a non-existent key to shut the vehicle down.

“These are the kinds of mistakes you make where you just chuckle to yourself,” he says. “We'll just have to make them a few times until we get used to it.”

These behaviors are consistent with Siemens' market research, which shows the driving public maintains a strong attachment to the tactile elements of vehicle operation.

Acknowledging it may have pushed the evolutionary envelope too far with its card use, Siemens came up with a compromise: a fob that performs the same function as the card. Only it's meant to be handled.

Not unlike a placebo in a pharmaceutical study, it provides a certain benign satisfaction to the motorist who inherently craves interaction. And for those whose needs are even more primal, Siemens offers this:

“We left, in a lot of instances, a lot of the active buttons on there,” says Allan Losey, manager of business development-body electronics at Siemens. “So you can lock and unlock the vehicle with the key fob if you wanted.”

Now the system is available in several configurations, Mr. Losey adds. Given human nature's track record of introducing variables, it's not surprising that Siemens realized an unexpected windfall from its card/fob technology. “In Europe,” Mr. Losey says, “when you're in a bar and you throw your keys on the table … it's really a status symbol. This was more important than in the U.S. where we tend to keep our keys in our pocket.”

Many concept cars are taking the idea a lot further. FILO, a fully functional concept car developed by Sweden's SKF in co-operation with Italy's Bertone, showcases various by-wire technologies. But instead of a steering column, it features a control yoke — similar to those found in aircraft — to accommodate steer-by-wire.

The result, of course, is a radically altered driving environment marked by the efficiencies of steer-by-wire. “You could literally snap your wrist and flip the car,” SKF's Walt Delevich says of the system's sensitivity.

This, however, presents another challenge. In the absence of familiar mechanical components, how can the operation of FILO — which also has no pedals — be made to feel more natural? Artificially, Mr. Delevich says.

“What experience has shown from the aircraft industry is you have to give the pilot or controller some kind of feel of where he is,” he says, adding SKF's solution is software that offers “force feedback.”

The system is programmed to detect loads and, when predetermined parameters are exceeded, respond with steering wheel resistance.

Audi AG did a similar trick with the Multitronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), now featured in its A6.

To date, the driving characteristics of common CVTs have not met with much buyer acclaim: CVTs eliminate the rise-and-fall sensations of an engine striving for its power and torque peaks and a transmission shifting gears to respond — a driving “input” to which we're all thoroughly acclimated. But through electronically controlled engine-speed tracking, Audi ensured expected performance “in conjunction with a reassuringly familiar pattern of sound.”

“What we're trying to do is bring the sensation of a traditional driving experience with this new technology,” says Mr. Delevich.

At Visteon Corp., researchers and engineers are grappling with similar issues. Says John Slosar, Visteon's director of telematics and multimedia systems: “It can be counter-intuitive, some of this stuff, the first time you use it.”

Such is the impact of “paradigm shift,” he says, likening advancemes in automotive technology to those that revolutionized the computer industry in the 1980s.

“The first computer was just a keyboard. Then they came out with this thing called the mouse. Have you ever taught anyone how to use a mouse?”

All you Boomers and Gen-Xers out there should pause here and recall those anxious moments under the Christmas tree with gray-haired parents or in-laws squinting at computer screens in desperate search of the pointer. Now brace yourselves.

“We have an in-vehicle computing platform that we're developing for an ’03 model year application which is on the order of 7 million lines of code,” Mr. Slosar says. “When I say that, the immediate mental model is this keyboard and your laptop. Think voice recognition. Think text-to-speech.”

Visteon already has voice-recognition systems in production on Infiniti's new Q45 and several Jaguar models. The system on the Q45 shows improvement over earlier Jag models.

“And then there's another in the pipeline we can't talk about. … There's ’03, ’03½ and ’04.”

Using voice-recognition systems often illustrates human failings. But we needn't hope for some rapid mutation to enable us to adapt. We just need to relax, Mr. Slosar says.

“Most people say, ‘Hey, I want to speak naturally into a microphone somewhere in the headliner or the mirror. I don't want to worry about it. ‘You … don't … want … people … trying … this.’

“It's funny because when you introduce some people to technology, there is a natural inclination to talk like a robot to it. That's the only problem we've had. If they just went ahead and spoke naturally, it would be fine.”

Legend says there remain, in remote areas of the globe, primitive communities of people who have shunned progress. They prefer instead to maintain their traditional ways of life, taking great pride in tuning their car radios by hand — especially in places where they don't know the stations.

Visteon does not discount these people, Mr. Slosar says.

“There's always those folks who are going to be the retro guys, or the Luddites, who refuse to adapt to a new way of doing stuff. I don't think that you'll necessarily replace your fingers in a car with 100% voice technology. I think that's naïve.

“Some will want it the old way. Some will want it the new way. Some will want it both ways.”

To ease the transition for more adventurous souls, Visteon has found a way to peer into the future. The company is building a simulator that, with the aid of advanced software, not only showcases new products, it demonstrates how they might be integrated with existing or other new systems.

More importantly perhaps, it also will provide a measure of how motorists might respond in a brave new world.

“It's coming on stream, but the process is basically there,” Mr. Slosar says.

While problematic for developers of digital technology, evolution's slow march is fertile territory for auto advertisers, says David Angelo, chief creative officer and managing partner of davidandgoliath.

“The more human that you make it, the easier it is for people to accept it,” says Mr. Angelo, whose L.A.-based firm devised Kia's current ad campaign featuring Frank. The annoying but endearing character vainly wonders aloud who owns a shiny Kia and, when reminded the pink slip is his, he snickers: “It is, isn't it?”

Says Mr. Angelo: “What we do is put our consumer hats on and we ask ourselves, ‘Well, what does this new technology mean?’ The first thing I think about is, I don't want to know about any of this technology. I just want to know how it applies to my life.”

When it comes to adaptation, Mr. Angelo is confident. Engineers should take heart because, he says, the human race is quite capable of catching up with itself.

“With Star Wars and all these movies, when the TV came out — we've had a lot of practice with the future.”