Cars 007 would love

Computers: Outfitted with satellite positioning systems and other gadgetry, everyday cars are becoming like vehicles seen in James Bond films.

July 24, 2000|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

Wheeling through the streets of Baltimore late at night, it's easy to wind up in a con frontation you don't want.

Furry critters dash across the road, freeze in the sudden glare of your headlights, and then skitter off in the wrong direction.

We're talking about rabbits, which have come to grief in my path more than once during the past few years, despite my efforts to avoid them. In the suburbs, the game is larger and the consequences more serious: deer, joggers, cars and dark roads don't mix.

But if you're driving a Cadillac DeVille DTS, you have a much better chance of avoiding disaster. At the bottom of the DeVille's windshield is a small green image that peers beyond the range of your high beams and shows every living thing on the roadway, whether it's 6 inches long or 6-foot-6-inches tall.

Declassified by the military in the 1980s, night vision is now the latest in state-of-the-art, personal technology for drivers. It's just one example of the changes that are improving safety on one hand, but turning cars into rolling versions of high-tech home and offices on the other - for better or worse.

Do your kids get bored on a trip? Stick a videotape in your on-board VCR and let them watch on an LCD built into your seat back while they listen on wireless earphones. Are you lost? Let your car tell you where you are and how to get where you're going. Need to check your e-mail? Your car can read it aloud to you.

The very sophistication of new automobile gadgetry has some critics worried. The dangers of driving while talking on a cell phones have been discussed for years, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says a recent survey shows that 25 percent of the 6.3 million car crashes in the United States each year are caused by driver distraction or inattention. NHTSA officials are worried that high-tech devices in cars may make the situation even worse.

For their part, carmakers say the same objections arose when radios were installed in cars during the 1930s. "You could say that about the rear-view mirror - here is something else to take your eyes off the road," argued Ed Zellner, vehicle chief engineer for the Cadillac De-Ville, which is crammed with high-tech gadgetry.

Safety debates aside, cars are well on their way to doing what George Jetson's spaceship did for him on his daily commute to work -just about everything. But you'll pay a pretty penny to experience the future.

Because of the expense of developing technology for cars, luxury cars - with their higher prices - tend to get the neat stuff first, Zellner said. In turn, luxury car buyers also are more likely to foot the bill for expensive gadgets such as Cadillac's $2,000 Night Vision system .

But eventually, popular technology cascades down to models that more buyers can afford. A good example is on-board navigation, once a aimed at the luxury car buyer but now available in mid-level cars.

Many of these systems have computer screens on the dashboard displaying maps generated by a computer connected to a CD-ROM in the glove-box or trunk. The devices, linked to a Global Positioning System receiver that uses satellites to triangulate the vehicle's location, can not only tell you where you are, but how to get where you're going.

The Deville's system, for example, allows you to punch in an address on a touch screen. It not only displays a map, but gives you directions over the car's speaker system.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee's $1,500 navigation system specializes in off-road travel. Using its GPS receiver, the Cherokee navigator keeps track of where you left the pavement and drops electronic "bread crumbs" in its database as you travel, according to Sjoerd Dijkstra, a spokesman for design and technologies at DaimlerChrysler Corp.

"So, when you want it to bring you back to the road, it knows how to do this," he said.

Clarion, a longtime maker of automotive audio systems, introduced its in-dash AutoPC two years ago. At $1,300, it is an option for those who want a piece of the luxury-car experience at a fraction of the luxury-car price.

Based on the Microsoft Windows CE operating system found in some personal digital assistants, it, too provides on-board navigation. But it adds voice control for the radio and CD player, limited e-mail and text-to-speech conversion to help you look up contacts in your address book.

With add-on modules, you can integrate the AutoPC with your cellular telephone for hands-free use ($200) or to hook up to the engine diagnostic programs built into all cars since 1996 ($400).

"The next generation will have an in-dash DVD player so that people in the rear seat can watch a movie," says Michelle Oishi, marketing department manager for Clarion Sales Corp.

If your children want to watch a movie today, they'll have to settle for videotape. For less than $1,000, owners of Sports Utility Vehicles can purchase a Clarion VHS recorder that fits into the rear seat console, along with a Liquid Crystal Display monitor and head phones.

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