The sun has barely risen on the age of driver information systems.

But the world's top three automotive suppliers — Delphi Automotive Systems, Visteon Corp. and Robert Bosch GmbH — and others are creating the impression that drivers soon will surf the Web, receive and send e-mail, make and break appointments, find inexpensive gas, tune the radio and turn up the air conditioning, all from a video screen conveniently positioned in the vehicle's instrument panel.

These companies are trying to create a market that eventually could be very lucrative. Then again, it may all be a pipe dream. Either way, the Big Three suppliers have deep enough pockets to continue nurturing this driver information sapling and hope it bears fruit. If it doesn't — well, there's always modest money to be made on brakes and audio systems.

But not all of the players in this fledgling market have other automotive business to fall back on in the event it dies.

Take, for instance, CAA AG of Filderstadt, Germany, near Stuttgart. It's a small public company founded in 1990 that initially supplied digital animation technology for weather report maps and video games.

In 1996, as the telematics and navigation system markets were taking their baby steps, BMW AG went to CAA to see if its visualization software could serve as the backbone for driver information systems of the future.

CAA, of course, said yes to BMW and to other customers who came calling as well, including Audi AG, DaimlerChrysler AG, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd.

And in its five-year automotive history, CAA has produced nothing that has found its way into a production vehicle. Sure, CAA has been paid for prototype development by these automakers. But beyond that, the revenue stream has been, well, more like a trickle.

And CAA isn't exactly a mom-and-pop shop. It has 140 employees and recently opened offices in Detroit and Tokyo, and plans call for an “international network” of branch operations.

Finally, light is shining at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

The company's first automotive customer, BMW, will apply CAA technology to the driver information system for the new flagship 7-series sedan, arriving later this year.

What will this system look like? BMW gave us a glimpse in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where its Z9 convertible concept was equipped with “iDrive,” BMW's solution for the maze of switches and knobs that are appearing on high-end luxury cars.

Telematics will only make for more distractions, so BMW smartly pursues a radical new approach for a driver to interact with the car. iDrive eliminates conventional switches and dials and replaces them with a single controller — much like a joy stick — located conveniently where the gear shift lever normally would be.

The driver dials the controller and moves it forward, rearward, left and right and then presses it to select a function to be performed — turning up the heat, dialing the phone, getting directions, etc. A small color screen on the instrument panel makes for simple viewing.

The bottom line for BMW is that the “joy of driving” is not diminished by a complicated instrument panel. CAA software will play a key role in BMW's launch of the iDrive system.

At the recent Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in Detroit, the company displays an Audi TT equipped with CarPC, which, like the BMW model, offers a central control of all functions for communication, entertainment, comfort and navigation. CarPC also is voice controlled, but it is unclear whether the BMW system will offer that capability.

CAA executives are banking that the BMW job is only the first of many. Besides selling product, CAA sees big opportunities in licensing its software to other companies for driver information systems. “We think it's really taking off now,” says company spokesman Frank Weberheinz.

But the waiting, as singer Tom Petty says, can be the hardest part.

Delphi Goes On A Buying Spree

In early March, Delphi Automotive Systems says it will acquire Eaton Corp.'s Vehicle Switch/Electronics Division for $300 million. The deal gives Delphi a broader electrical products portfolio and more business outside of former parent General Motors Corp. Delphi also purchases a minority equity stake in Duraswitch Industries Inc. and acquires an exclusive license to use Duraswitch technology in the auto industry. In braking technology, Delphi acquires the Advanced Disc System, a new lighter weight, twin-disc concept in foundation brakes, from Federal-Mogul Corp. Finally, Delphi signs a $50 million co-development agreement with Brilliance China Automotive Holdings Ltd. to supply Jinbei-branded vehicles with complete engine management systems within four years. As part of the system, Delphi supplies the engine control module, sensors, throttle body, fuel rail assembly, ignition and fuel pump module.

Around the Industry

  • SKF, Tenneco Automotive, TRW Inc. and Valeo SA launch a strategic alliance to better serve the European aftermarket. The alliance will focus on training and technical support and logistics, especially in transportation. The four suppliers will remain independent and separate companies and will retain their own original equipment and aftermarket brands.

  • Motorola moves to solidify its place in automotive semiconductors by partnering with Elmos Semiconductor AG of Dortmund, Germany, a manufacturer of integrated circuits. It's not a merger, and there is no investment, the parties say. The companies plan to provide automotive customers with advanced microcontrollers, with an emphasis on competitive pricing and fast time-to-market.

  • Federal-Mogul wins a contract to design and produce pistons for an all-new V-8 engine for Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s fullsize pickup, which will be produced in the U.S. after 2003. This is Federal-Mogul's first piston contract with Nissan in the U.S. Kolbenschmidt Pierburg AG has been Nissan's primary piston supplier in North America.