Commentary

What if your cellular phone were to supplant all those dials and buttons that seem to clutter your car’s otherwise clean interior design?

Auto makers continually are struggling with ways to organize the “center stack” – that busy slice of vertical real estate usually found between the gauges and the glove box. Their goal: enabling easy access to features such as audio or navigation systems, without compromising aesthetics.

Easier said than done.

The considerable efforts of designers and engineers have spawned two basic approaches. And they are as different as Wendy’s and Wolfgang Puck.

One design philosophy makes every control available at a glance. Like a single-page menu. Convenient, perhaps, but sometimes jumbled.

The other strategy boasts a solitary joystick – elegant but often unwieldy because it requires scrolling through endless pages on a display screen.

However, advances in cell-phone technology could resolve this age-old conflict of form vs. function, according to a suggestion made during this week’s SAE International World Congress in Detroit. That’s because many cell phones can duplicate the performance of in-vehicle systems.

Consider GPS navigation, an option that often can cost upward of $1,200. But for the standard cost of air time, cell phone screens can be transformed into GPS devices that display maps and deliver turn-by-turn directions.

Devices such as the Blackberry and Treo, amalgams of cell phones and hand-held computers, offer larger screens and voice-command recognition.

Then there are in-vehicle audio systems, essential to customer satisfaction.

Frank Homann, Siemens VDO vice president-cockpit modules, tells his fellow engineers at SAE that MP3 players are displacing the CD from auto interiors. And by 2015, CD players will have gone the way of 8-track stereos, he claims.

According to Ward’s data, 19.6% of all ’06 cars built in North America for the U.S. market had MP3 capability – more than eight times the proliferation rate of two years ago. Over the same period, the installation rate for CD players slipped to 95.2% from 99.1%.

Credit Apple’s ubiquitous iPod, used by countless motorists to infuse in-vehicle audio systems with personalized MP3 playlists.

“It wasn’t just the functionality and what you can store and the size and the picture quality, it was the (human-machine interface),” Homann says, adding the innovation apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

In the future, vehicles will come with built-in phone cradles for charging and connectivity. “iPhone cradles,” Homann predicts, referring to the newly minted Apple-brand cell phone.

Motorists would then have music, photos and video at their disposal – the same flexibility afforded now by Chrysler’s MyGIG, a $2,030 20-MB in-dash hard drive that also comes with navigation.

Pity, however, that automotive technologies such as lane-departure warning are not migrating to cell phones.

Infiniti features a camera-based system that emits four gentle beeps if a driver begins to veer over the lines on the road.

Wouldn’t it be sweet if that lane-straddling knucklehead on the cell phone in front of you could get an air horn ringtone as a “gentle” reminder?

emayne@wardsauto.com