Twenty years ago, the advent of an electronics boom was evident to many people in the auto industry.
There were predictions, later fulfilled, of route-guidance systems, sophisticated on-board vehicle diagnostics, electronically controlled cleaner-burning engines, intelligent highways and seats that can be programmed, like a computer, to remember a driver's preferred seating position.
It's nice to see that some predictions come true. As readers will see elsewhere in this millennium-closing package, the auto industry has had its share of promising technologies that have failed to bear fruit.
But in the field of automotive electronics, it's pretty hard to oversell a technology that is being rapidly applied from bumper to bumper, literally, in front- and rear-collision avoidance systems, in the chassis, in fuel delivery, in tires, in steering, in brakes.
By one estimate, electronics will represent up to 45% of the cost content of many vehicles by 2005. Automotive electronics have been growing at a rate of 12% to 14% a year since 1988, making it the fastest growing segment of the auto industry.
Most drivers pay little attention to electronic features, which quietly and efficiently do their jobs deep inside the vehicle. Drivers don't even know it.
But in the passenger compartment, a completely different scenario is unfolding.
Automakers, suppliers, computer makers, software developers and Internet service providers are salivating at the prospects of delivering more entertainment and information to a vehicle's interior than any human being can possibly consume.
A whole new acronym-intensive front-seat lexicon will spring forth with terms like GPS, DVD, MP3, WAP, GSM, AOL and palm PC. If you're still driving one of those 1999 relics, your high-tech vocabulary will stop at CD, VCR and AM/FM.
At that point, you'll be SOL.
Not that you'll have to actually listen to - or look at - all this stuff. Thankfully, right-minded individuals who still revere the automobile as a place of refuge and escape can turn it all off and do what people were supposed to do on the open road - drive.
Those who doubt that the next 20 years will see cars equipped with e-mail, the Internet, digital quality surround-sound, real-time traffic information and a lot more navigation systems clearly have not been paying attention to the marketplace.
It only makes sense that cars of the future be an extension of the home or office. People already carry their offices with them in their Palm Pilots (or the generic equivalent "personal digital assistant") and their cellular phones, so why should the car be any different?
Whether people can safely juggle these devices while driving is another issue that is about to be tested on a much broader scale. The solution lies in making them voice-activated and capable of delivering information in a text-to-speech format. Both technologies are rapidly advancing.
The world's top three suppliers are banking heavily on the notion that this electronic revolution will take place, and so is every instrument panel producer, along with every company in consumer electronics, along with ... You get the point.
They are all working feverishly in labs on their concepts, looking for the ideal package that is simple, affordable, safe and technologically complete. With so much activity behind the scenes, it's like a volcano, building pressure below the surface, preparing for the inevitable explosion.
"A relentless rollout of wireless technology is coming to automobiles,' predicts Robert Schumacher, director of the mobile multimedia business group atDelco Electronics. He leads the company's mobile multimedia campaign, dubbed "Communiport."
Thesystem includes MP3 music playback, mobile Internet browsing and universal connectivity allowing hands-free operation of a portable cell phone.
If the auto industry has learned anything from the computer and cell phone market, the price for this technology will be high at first, but it will drop quickly and will become as common on vehicles as CD players are today.
By some estimates, 70% of new cars in the U.S. will have Internet access by 2005. In Europe alone, the market for navigation systems for directionally challenged drivers is expected to reach 500,000 units this year, compared with 240,000 units in 1998, according to RobertGmbH, one of many players.
The company says the market is expected to reach a million units within two years.
and its Blaupunkt subsidiary worked closely with DaimlerChrysler AG in developing the "Comand" dynamic navigation system for the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Unlike many navigation systems, it receives real-time traffic information to route drivers around tieups.
Competitor Siemens AG is in talks with a partner to provide a system with emergency roadside assistance, route-specific traffic information, turn-by-turn route guidance and Internet access with an audible Web browser. The system should be available within two years, probably as a dealer add-on.
As a producer of both cellular phones and automotive electronics, Siemens is uniquely positioned to answer a key question: If portable cell phones and Palm Pilots are available with GPS and Internet access, why is it necessary to put that capability on the dashboard as well?
First, the federal government wants something done about car phones, which distract drivers, says Ronald Knockeart, vice president of intelligent transportation systems at Siemens. And it can improve vehicle diagnostics.
"Plus, the system needs to integrate with the vehicle," he says. "If you try to provide navigation without a link to the vehicle, it won't be very good. The automotive industry will not want it. With a car you also get a GPS (Global Positioning System) antenna and the ability to track the vehicle in terms of where it is."
Tracking a growing number of vehicles equipped with GPS makes for highly reliable traffic information, which is continually passed on to motorists in a never-ending electronic loop.
Another communications specialist, Motorola, announces a collaboration with IBM, QNX Software Systems Ltd. and Embedded Planet to develop MobileGT, an open, Java-centric architecture allowing wireless links to phone, the Internet, car audio and multimedia.
As for cost, Motorola has set a target price to consumers of 3% of manufacturer's suggested retail price, which would be $600 for a $20,000 car.
Motorola reports that it will launch its first mobile multimedia system for a U.S. automaker in 2002.
Brian McCalley, Motorola's market development manager for driver information systems, says MobileGT is about providing motorists with limited audible information from the Internet - such as e-mail, weather reports or stock quotes; whatever the customer wants.
"It's the right information at the right place at the right time," Mr. McCalley says. "We think of the Internet as a repository of information. We give people only what's relevant. If you have to scroll through Windows and spend visual time looking at it, it's not useful, and it's dangerous at the end of the day."
The auto Internet craze has attracted a host of software and Silicon Valley wizards including Seattle's Brook Lang, who founded InfoMove last year to provide a direct interface between the car and the Internet. Drivers can place their palm PC in a cradle on the instrument panel to access information.
The company will demonstrate its system on aExplorer this month in Seattle and on 100 more vehicles in Seattle and another city - Detroit or San Francisco - in January.
"By next Christmas (2000), people will be able to buy InfoMove's service, for between $10 and $50 per month, depending on the desired features, plus the cost of a compatible palm PC, which now runs about $500.
"This is like," exudes an enthusiastic Mr. Lang, "the second gold rush of the Internet."