Convergence '98 was by most accounts a success. Attendance was 5,103, a 38% increase over 1996. The Great Lakes Annex tent - oops, that's "fabric structure" - at the Dearborn, MI, Hyatt Regency was such a hit that it drew some visitors away from other parts of the show. Plans are afoot to put all exhibitors under one big roof in 2000.

More than 70 exhibitors showed products they are eager to introduce on vehicles of the future, including voice activation, tire-pressure monitoring, vehicle diagnostic tools and Internet access. In this explosive era of automotive electronics, even the sky is limitless, thanks to GPS navigation systems.

But after three days of hoopla, Convergence '98 needed a reality check. Someone had to remind the attendees that all this on-board communication stuff may be cool, but drivers might not be ready for it.

The Blue Ribbon Panel that concluded the third day of events served that purpose. Sure, the panelists were distinguished executives who find the possibilities intriguing, but they warned that being first to market is meaningless unless the "human factors" have been studied exhaustively.

If drivers can barely speak on the phone without blowing through a stop sign, how can we expect them to surf the Web, retrieve e-mail, get directions and check the stock market while safely piloting a 2-ton mass of metal?

"When the accidents happen, when people sue, they will sue everyone standing around," says Donald Runkle, vice president and general manager of Delphi Energy & Engine Management Systems. "We still need to be responsible and attempt to work out the human factor of these units that I'm fearful of dropping in right in the middle of the car."

He sees a "high probability" that the computer industry will do exactly that - sidestep the automakers and provide aftermarket products that merely plug into the cigar lighter and operate with no link to the vehicle.

Still, other panelists suggest that high-priced electronic toys may not be all that enticing to many car buyers.

"The first thing they look for is cupholders, to give you a sense of where we are with electronics today," says Francois Castaing, technical advisor to the chairman at Chrysler Corp.

"I don't know that the average driver can afford, nor desire to have, anything else but big cupholders everywhere in the car," Mr. Castaing says. "So let's be realistic as an industry when we talk about putting the Internet in the car and all those things. Are we sure we know what we are doing?"

William Powers, however, is convinced there will be a North American market for navigation systems, as people will pay for the convenience of having hotel and restaurant information at their fingertips. It's critical that OEMs play a role in introducing this technology to car buyers, he says.

"We've got to try and make sure we have a reasonable interface as these experiments take place because these experiments will take place whether we want them to or not," says Mr. Powers, vice president of research at Ford Motor Co.

"Ninety percent of the customers couldn't probably care less about all this stuff, but once you get a few applications to turn people on, they sort of move quickly," he suggests.

A number of solutions were proposed, including a block-out mechanism to prevent, for instance, a phone call or a pager message from coming in while a driver is in a braking maneuver or cornering hard.

Siegfried Dais questions whether it is necessary to extend into cars the same computer capabilities commonplace at home and work. After all, just how connected to the world do we all need to be every minute of the day?

Mr. Dais, a member of the board of management at Robert Bosch GmbH, supports the concept of a personal communication device that could be used anywhere, whether at home, work or in the car.

Convergence founder Trevor Jones told the panel it's premature to talk about these advanced electronics when simple functions such as emissions, fuel economy and safety are still a long way from perfection.

Mr. Runkle agrees, saying that the rapid development of automotive electronics hasn't made cars much smarter.

"Cars are still fairly dumb compared to animals. I make the analogy to horses, which are about as dumb an animal as I know. And still they are smarter than our cars in terms of not letting you spin out in the middle of a turn. Our cars will basically let you do that," Mr. Runkle says.

"Our cars absolutely do not look forward. . . . When I'm running or jogging and I see an ice patch coming up, I do something. The cars I drive get on the ice patch, and then they do something. There's no looking ahead."

Sounds like a topic worth revisiting at Convergence 2000.