Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Cars as Rolling Offices, with a Laptop on Dash ; Auto Show Reveals How Much Cars Are Being 'Wired' to outside World

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Cars as Rolling Offices, with a Laptop on Dash ; Auto Show Reveals How Much Cars Are Being 'Wired' to outside World

Article excerpt

Here's what your typical commute to work will soon look like: You're clipping down the highway in a sport-utility vehicle that resembles a Humvee with metallic paint.

You punch a keypad on the dashboard to check your e-mail: Two jokes again - bad ones - from your father-in-law. You surf the Web, checking what happened on the Tokyo stock market overnight. You call the office on a voice-activated cellphone to see if the first meeting is still at 9. The kids, whom you're dropping off at the Happy Tot day-care center, watch "Sesame Street" on a screen in the backseat.

Welcome to the budding era of the "networked" car. For better or worse, your vehicle is slowly transforming into part office, part electronic playpen.

Driven by the convergence of communications and computer technology, cars are becoming less about transportation and more about "multitasking" - in essence, turning driving into something resembling riding the train. This is one of the recurring themes at this year's North American International Auto Show starting here today. While the trend is likely to exacerbate the debate over the wisdom of offering drivers so many distractions, automakers are nevertheless pushing ahead with high-end models increasingly wired to the outside world. For instance:

* The GMC Terracross, a 2004 luxury SUV that appeared here first, sports a docking port for a laptop computer in the dashboard so you can do anything from the car that you can from your desk.

* The O4, a small convertible also unveiled by General Motors, has a dashboard that can display whatever you want to project onto it -from a landscape portrait to your Web browser. It follows Ford's 24/7 concept last year.

* BMW emphasized the dashboard in its Z9 roadster concept car that has one electronic display in front of the driver for speed, fuel range, and other driving instruments, and another in the center of the dashboard that can display maps, e-mail, and the Internet where passengers can read it.

"In 10 years, we will have a car that will be able to drive itself," says Watts Wacker, a futurist and founder of First Matter in Westport, Conn. "It culminates in the virtual driver."

Making a commute productive

Behind the office-in-a-car trend is the growing perception that as lives grow busier, commutes lengthen, and congestion expands, Americans won't tolerate time wasted sitting in traffic.

Many already don't.

Wireless phones are the fastest-penetrating technology in history. Today, 44 percent of drivers carry cellphones in their cars, 7 percent of drivers have e-mail access in their cars, and 3 percent have fax machines, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year.

While the presence of so many electronic gizmos is enticing to many drivers, it can pose problems for others on the road: Driver distractions cause one-quarter of the 6.3 million crashes in the US each year. Though safety experts are concerned, not everyone thinks that banning electronics from cars is the answer.

"Driver distraction needs to be looked at as a whole picture," says John Paul a safety advocate with AAA of Southern New England. "Just banning cell phones in cars doesn't help."

This year automakers are focusing on making technology easier to use from behind the wheel. …

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