Monday, August 07, 2000

'Net coming to car radio




By Dave Carpenter
The Associated Press

        CHICAGO — The traditional AM/FM car radio is going the way of the Victrola and the eight-track player.

        In fact, the company that pioneered radio in cars is one of many pushing to tune it out — pairing it with the Internet to provide a more useful, entertaining and plugged-in product.

        Motorola Inc.'s iRadio prototype and a truckload of competitors, most still a year or more away from the market, are bringing the Web to your car.

        “We're reinventing a product we invented in 1929,” says Brian Santoro, a vice president at Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola, whose name comes from “motor car” plus “Victrola.” “It's our heritage, it's our DNA.”

        While Motorola is among the leaders in this emerging blockbuster category, it won't be first.

        Clarion Corp. of America claimed those honors last year when it came out with a souped-up car radio called Clarion AutoPC. Along with the usual radio and CD player, the voice-activated system offers personalized Internet data such as news headlines, sports scores and stock quotes along with e-mail, and can provide directions with a built-in global positioning system.

        Others are scrambling to come out with similar products.

        Among automakers, General Motors and its OnStar service will provide some Internet access in new versions of 32 of its 54 models this fall. GM will also offer a Cadillac DeVille that has a screen capable of downloading e-mail and doing limited Web browsing only while the car is in park.

        Not wanting to be left behind, Ford Motor Co. says it will have some sort of e-mail and Internet connection in the near future on some luxury models.

        The carmakers are betting that millions of drivers will be willing to pay as much as $30 a month for the Internet-access gadgets, which are expected to be standard equipment in all new cars by 2004 or 2005.

        Motorola is parlaying its roles as a longtime electronics supplier to automakers and that of the world's No. 2 cell-phone manufacturer into dominance in the burgeoning industry of telematics — wireless telecommunications in cars and trucks.

        Demand for Web-connected cars is projected to help triple the company's telematics sales to about $1 billion in the next three years. And iRadio, which is expected to be installed in luxury cars of the major carmakers by the end of 2001, is only the forerunner of bigger projects still on the drawing board.

        “Telematics will be the next air bag in the auto industry,” said Santoro. “It's an enormous opportunity.”

        Unveiled last January at a consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, iRadio remains a tantalizing prototype that combines existing capabilities with a few new ones.

        A display model, hooked up in a Mercedes, gives a preview of next year's product while engineers tinker with the latest version in labs.

        After indicating their preferences on a Web site at home, drivers will be able to speak a single word and get — hopefully — instant results in the car.

        Say “stocks” and a robotic voice gives the latest Microsoft or Wal-Mart share price. Say “traffic” and get an update of conditions on your preprogrammed route.

        Drive into a new city and your computer will be automatically reprogrammed to indicate all rock FM stations.

        The quickest route, the closest gas station, the nearest Mexican restaurant, the next Marriott down the highway, sports scores of your favorite teams — all will be theoretically just a word away.

        Motorola, while still working out the kinks, says you will also be able to leave a voice-mail, hear your e-mails, send e-mail, page a customer or download audio books with the car computer system.

        Emergency information also will be available. Say “hospital” and you will see a screen display of the nearest medical facility; say “nav” and get spoken directions on how to get there.

        The company is reluctant to talk about pricing at this stage, but industry estimates put the cost of iRadio models at between $1,000 and $3,000.

        Motorola has formed alliances with carmakers, IBM, technology start-ups and others as it tries to speed the product to market.

        Charles DiSanza, an analyst who follows Motorola, says iRadio is well-conceived and looks “pretty neat,” although it remains “embryonic.”

        “It looks like they're doing the right things,” but it's still too early to assess how it will fare in the marketplace, said DiSanza, of Gerard Klauer Mattison & Co.

        Another key unanswered question: Will it distract the driver unduly? Many are concerned that all this multi-tasking behind the wheel doesn't exactly go hand in wheel with good driving.

        Jim Louderback, who follows technology for cable television network ZDTV, says that while some of iRadio's features “sound great ... others just sound dangerous. But you can't put the genie back in the bottle.”

        Government and safety organizations, while enthusiastic about the potential of new gadgets like mapping and locator systems in cars, are more wary of the fun stuff after reporting a growing problem with distractions from hand-held cell phones.

        “There are a lot of very interesting concepts and ideas being floated around about potential in-car services,” said Geoff Sundstrom, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association. “But our industry and the wireless industry need to make darn certain that we're not creating a safety issue on the road.”

        Sensitive to the concerns, Motorola says talking to the computer instead of punching in numbers will enhance safety. It is working to iron out glitches in the voice-recognition system to make sure drivers speak to it rather than pushing endless buttons.

        “We do not foresee people surfing in the driver's seat — that's never going to happen due to the complexity of the Internet,” said Santoro.

       



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