Latest in gizmos, cars share stage

Auto show: Motor Trend display opening today includes newest high-tech features.

January 15, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Today's new cars can warm up while you wait in the house, adjust their speed based on traffic, sound warnings about backing into something, change radio stations at the command of a voice, even give you directions or send for help.

Auto manufacturers are pouring more high-tech gadgets and systems into cars and trucks than ever before, in a race to appeal to consumers' desire for convenience, safety, economy and even fun. Much of the latest technology will be on display today in Baltimore at the opening of the Motor Trend International Auto Show.

But complicated new technology can also overwhelm consumers. It can fizzle out or take years of tweaking before gaining widespread acceptance. Experts say automakers are increasingly struggling to find the line between cool gadgetry that works for the consumer and an overload of technology that makes more work.

"There's no doubt that we are in a technical revolution in the industry. You're going to see a lot more pushing of technology, no question, and a lot more trying of technology on consumers to see if they accept it," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "The trick manufacturers have is to try to assess ... what consumers will pay for and what kind of value they place on it. No one has all the answers."

The auto show, which runs through Monday at the Baltimore Convention Center, will showcase features such as a remote starter, offered for the first time in General Motors Corp.'s Chevy Malibu; an instrument panel that drivers can customize to glow in any of 120 colors, in the redesigned Ford Mustang; and high-efficiency hybrid cars that operate on gasoline and electricity.

Rear-mounted video cameras are featured on the Infiniti Q45 luxury sedan and the Acura MDX sport utility vehicle with navigation systems on the dashboard. When the car goes in reverse, the image shot by the camera is displayed on a screen, allowing drivers to see behind them without turning in their seats. Two new Acura sedans have voice-activated navigation systems.

Part of the challenge for manufacturers is making new high-tech features as seamless and invisible as possible, experts said, to minimize learning curves and bridge the gap between what technology allows us to do and our ability to use it.

"We are so flooded with technology, we are literally overwhelmed," Cole said. "We're doing a lot better and faster, but can humans adapt to all of this technology as quickly as it's being brought to us, whether in our homes or in our cars?"

David Champion, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports magazine, said the worst example of technology overkill is the BMW 7 series.

Consumer Reports' criticism of the vehicle centers around its iDrive device, a computer-mouse-like device that combines control of the climate control, entertainment system and satellite-aided navigation, Champion said

"We tested it, and it is one of the most infuriating vehicles to drive," he said. "It is a beautiful car if you don't interact with it. Even to go from one radio station to the next is very complicated, or to adjust the seat. Everything is under a single display. It's like trying to learn Windows from DOS at 80 miles an hour."

For instance, he said, you have to first select entertainment on the screen, then select what to do on that screen.

"If you go in the wrong direction, you have to start again," he said. "It's very confusing."

John Matthius, feature editor for Motor Trend, agreed that for some the iDrive is too complicated for everyday use.

"To people that are technologically inclined, this can be a technology that's very appealing, but it's not a technology that is real intuitive," he said. "It takes some learning to learn how to use it."

Champion of Consumer Reports sees problems with the navigation systems in many makes and models of high-end cars because so many different functions, including the radio and heater, are combined and selected through a single screen. That can prove cumbersome to use and, worse, could distract drivers from the road, he said.

He himself experienced a snafu with a voice-command radio system: It didn't understand his English accent.

Dave Hederich, a spokesman for GM, said the automaker is striving to develop technologies that are easy to use and available to many.

"We're trying to drive the technologies down to the more affordable family-type cars that the average person would purchase, and not keep it in the stratospheric levels where only the wealthy play," Hederich said. "We try to integrate the technologies in a way that they work together and that they're almost transparent to the user."

To that end, GM has put the first factory-installed remote-start system in its revived Chevrolet Malibu, a mid-size sedan that sells in the $20,000 range.

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