Car PCs – who needs 'em?

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While Windows CE is in the news this week as a result of Microsoft's pocket PC marketing push, the mini operating system has another potentially huge target market that always appears to be on the back burner – the in car PC. A study made in November last year claimed that revenues from in car computing will rise from less than $40 million currently to more than $1.7 billion by 2004. Every few months or so for the last few years, someone from a company like Ford, GM, Intel, IBM and Microsoft has stood up and done a visionary presentation about how groovy it will be when we all have computers in our cars. Then it all goes quiet for another six months. The most recent was Ford CEO Jacques Nasser who told USA Today in January: "We will do nothing short of transforming our cars and our trucks into portals for the Internet". In car computing is one of those just over the horizon ideas that never seem to actually arrive. Of course, we've all had computers in our cars for years, looking after engine management, antilock brakes and performing diagnostics. A few rather tragic experiments with talking cars that told you when you were going too fast (the one I'm thinking of was in an Austin Maestro, one of the worst cars ever made and which therefore very rarely went fast enough to trigger the warning). Luxury cars such as Jaguars now have voice controlled stereo systems and air conditioning, others have traffic jam warning systems, but as yet there is little evidence that car makers are keen to be the first to take the plunge with a production car that has 'proper' computing built in as standard – things like Internet access and email. One of Intel's engineers told me over two years ago that once a mass-market car manufacturer offered in car computing, all the other big companies would be forced to follow suit, but that it was like a game of automotive chicken with nobody prepared to make the first move. He was speaking about a car equipped with a CE-based PC running on a Pentium 166 MMX that was hardened to withstand the extremes of temperature and humidity found under the bonnet (OK, hood). The car would talk to the user's home PC using Bluetooth and upload email, traffic information, weather reports, MP3 music and so on. Once at work, more Bluetooth networking wired into the office car park would allow a similar process to happen for the homeward journey. The technology is all there and has been for ages, so why isn't it available as standard equipment in new cars? So far the only products announced are from In car entertainment (ICE) suppliers like Clarion and Visteon – a division of Ford - which have previewed new devices offering interactive speech technology, mobile connectivity, information on demand and enhanced entertainment. The systems offer DVD playback, wireless traffic data, navigation, and hands-free cell phone control, along with large screen support aimed at keeping the kids quiet in the back of the car. This week, Mitsubishi announced it would adopt Windows CE for its future car navigation systems. The company plans to release its first CE-based car navigation system, the D550, sometime next month. It will have improved capabilities for search, direction guidance and will show road junctions and crossroads in three dimensions. Lee Machen, an engineer working on car PC development in Intel's Handheld Components Division in Arizona, says: "The Big Three auto makers in the US, as well as major companies in Europe and Asia, are still evaluating what their in-vehicle computing strategy will be. In the next few years every car will have some level of computing functionality, from basic safety and security in the low-end to more driver- and passenger-oriented functions such as navigation and DVD movies in high-end vehicles. "The most popular application today is navigation using a global positioning system (GPS). This system maps a course to the driver’s destination, and gives turn-by-turn directions according to an on-board map database. In the future, maps and updated traffic information downloaded from the Internet through a wireless link might replace these databases. Real-time information could provide an instant update on a road under construction or an accident causing delays, allowing the system to offer an alternate route. "Entertainment is another important function. Many systems will handle the current car stereo functionality, including radio, CD, and CD changer controls, while adding MP3 player capabilities. Higher-end systems will support backseat passenger entertainment in the form of DVD movie players with surround sound and video games." Machen adds that, despite the risks, over 85 percent of cell phone owners still use their phones while driving, and integrating them into the car increases both their usefulness and safety. With integrated phones, drivers never need to take their hands off of the wheel because calls can be made through voice commands, and the computer can automatically lower the volume of other audio systems when a call is received. The cell phone will also be a way for drivers to obtain wireless data in the car, letting them stay connected on the road with e-mail and Internet information. Messages, sports scores, stock quotes, or any other data that is received can then be converted to speech and recited to the driver. The manufacturers claim that car PC applications will keep drivers safe, entertained, and productive, but UK research has shown that even drivers making calls with hands free mobiles have an increased risk of being involved in an accident due to decreased concentration. A sophisticated satellite navigation system would probably require more concentration than arguing with your spouse about which way up they were holding the map. There is a risk that the average driver, already nearing information overload about what gear they're in, will become even worse when faced with a barrage of data from in car PCs. Let's face it, most drivers (except you and I, obviously) are rubbish. Before joining The Register, I drove an average of 30,000 miles a year for three years. I found that having the radio on or listening to a CD made me less attentive to what was going on outside the car. The only time I was snapped by a speed camera was whilst I was talking to someone on the hands free. I now even resent it if passengers talk to me while I'm driving. I certainly don't want a chirpy voice synthesiser telling me the screen washer fluid level is low and that it's raining in Manchester. I know it's raining in Manchester. It always is. ®

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