March 25, 2005 1:05 PM PST

Computers add fun, safety to concept cars

NEW YORK--These days, that new-car smell more than likely has a hint of silicon.

Mechanical engineering hasn't been pushed off pole position in the car industry--yet. But one glance at the 50 concept and production models on display here at the New York International Auto Show should be enough to convince even the most devout grease monkey that computers are increasingly in the driver's seat, when it comes to


What's new:
Computing power is rising in the car industry, as designers switch from mechanics to electronics in everything from accelerating and gear-shifting to braking.

Bottom line:
Dashboards will get all the functions of a desktop PC, including MP3 player connectors. Under the hood, computer chips and networking technologies aim to make new models safer and easier to drive as well as more fuel-efficient.

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cutting-edge automobile design. The show, previewed to journalists earlier this week, opened its doors to the public on Friday for 10 days of auto utopia.

Computing power is rising just as quickly as horsepower and other measures of performance in the industry, auto executives gathered here said. LCD-panel dashboards and MP3 connectors thus are expected to become much more widespread in new cars over the next few years. In addition, features such as "dynamic stability control," which aims to correct driving mistakes in real time, could become more prevalent, some predicted.

The result goes beyond mere gadgetry, as designers switch from mechanics to electronics in everything from accelerating and gear shifting to braking. That, in turn, is giving designers greater flexibility to rethink interfaces--with profound effects for interior space, experts said.

"Everything is blending into one unified theme. Aesthetically, that frees me to do more interesting things," said Anthony Prozzi, the designer behind the Meta One concept car, from Ford Motors' Mercury division. "I no longer have to design around a nasty black box," he added, referring to old analog radio components.

The most visible sign of the digital invasion is on the dashboard: Some of the concept vehicles include all the functions of a better-than-average desktop PC, from configurable screens to built-in MP3 player connectors. Meanwhile, under the hood, automakers are using more computer chips and networking technologies as they try to make new models safer and easier to drive, as well as more fuel-efficient.

NY Auto Show

The Meta One sports utility vehicle offers a notable example of how interiors are shifting as a result of digital evolution. The smooth, flowing design relies on recessed buttons to shift gears, replacing the stalks and other common controls that jut out in more traditional cars. It has three eye-level LCD screens that can be tailored to a driver's individual tastes and that show traditional gauges such as a speedometer or navigation information.

"The whole idea is that when you're in your car, you want a refuge--like a modern living room," said Prozzi, a former fashion designer. The Meta One "is a test bed to see if people are prepared for new technology. So far, everyone that's seen it says, 'Yes.'"

Scion's T2B concept car also has a computer-powered dash, which incorporates what the company calls an "electronic ticker tape." It

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Related Book: Geek My Ride
Install a PC, game system and DVD player in your car. Talk to your car's computer. Coming in April by Auri Rahimzadeh. Available on Amazon now!
Posted by AuriRahimzadeh (17 comments )
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Putting all this this computerized technology into cars is not adding fun or safety to cars. At best it just raises the price. At worst, it creates problems. I do understand the need to increase fuel economy. But, it has gone way beyond that. Since the very beginning of the automotive industry, people have contributed many designs that actually work in making cars safer, use less fuel, and last longer. Most of these things are shot down by buying the pattents and just not being used. All the cars makers know that there is alot of money to be made on parts. This knowledge is pushes cars into a state where their parts are made to be replaced. Yes, it is true that you can now get 200,000 to 300,000 miles on a car now. But, that doesn't come without a price. There are plenty of things that people never see, atleast until the car is wrecked. It is just plain insanity to replace a simple two wire switch with a $500 computer module that requires a 75 wire connector and a $2000 scan tool only available to dealers to access that computers' trouble codes. They will design these cars with computer modules made inside the headlight switch, inside the fuse block, or place them inside doors and fenders. The mechanical link between the accellerator pedal and the engine has been removed. The mechanical link between the steering wheel and the front wheels are about to be removed. We all want style and luxury, but to do some of these things is just plain crazy. There seems to be a serious misunderstanding in the engineering departments of the differance between "electronics" and "computers". To computerize things is not the way to go. Using simple electronics would be better and more worth while. The auto makers haven't clicked to the idea that their customers understand electronics more than they understand computers. But, then maybe that's just it. This could easily be more about getting people into the dealerships and away from doing things for themselves. A money thing. Computers deffinately have their place in this world, I just do not believe that place is in cars. With the direction this is all going, someone on the other side of the globe could end up taking control of everything my car does or maybe just monitoring by microphone and video. You may call this paranoid. But, it's the reality of computers at this point. Doing these kinds of things to cars is really nothing more than overkill.
Posted by Prndll (382 comments )
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What ever happened to the act of actually DRIVING your car. The thrill of getting on the open road and feeling real feedback from the steering wheel, clutch, brake, throttle and gearstick? While technology has done some great things for automobiles, I don't want to drive a PC.
Posted by DynoEnvy (1 comment )
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