What's New in Technology for October 2003

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The mainstays of the Information Age--laptops, cell phones, wireless hand-held text messaging devices, and personal digital assistants (PDAs) allow us to keep connected to our offices, business contacts, friends and family while we stay mobile. They make staying in touch easier, and—for good or bad-- blur the boundary between work and home life. Now automakers, major marketers of gasoline, and others, are keen to make your car a vehicle for the Information Age, and are exploring ways to bring information directly to your dashboard.

Many of the basics needed to make your vehicle a traveling information center are already in place. Today’s cars have dozens of microprocessors built into them, and the large transportation and haulage companies have used satellite services and global positioning systems in their business operations for quite some time.

The networked car is already a reality in Japan where a relatively simple information system dispenses traffic and parking information to thousands of drivers who receive reports on screens mounted on the dashboard. The information is gleaned from police stations and delivered via the Japanese Government’s Vehicle Information and Communication System (VICS) to installed screens in three formats—text, simple graphics and maps. The VICS runs over infrared radio waves and FM radio bands.

For the fully networked car to be a viable business prospect in the U.S., a wide range of information content --beyond traffic reports --will need to be in the pipeline for delivery to the dashboard. Experts believe this will require a network of information “kiosks” to disseminate data to the dashboard monitors, and, of course, some entity or business segment willing to develop a realistic business model and invest in the necessary infrastructure. Some of the large oil companies involved in retailing gasoline are interested in the idea of information kiosks as a way to generate additional revenue and improve profit margins. Other business sectors are also eyeing the business opportunities networked cars would create. Newspaper groups—always eager for new media platforms—might be likely contenders, providing drivers in large metropolitan areas with timely commuter information alongside advertising information from paid sponsors.

For drivers to get roadside access to high tech information, cars will require built-in wireless systems. Several major automakers already have made inroads into this area. The OnStar satellite network used by General Motors in their top-of-the-line models (and promoted as a means for owners to track down stolen cars) is an early example of a built-in system. General Motors is also exploring ways to enable cars on the highway to hook in to LAN (local area network) protocols. And, DaimlerChrysler is reported to be testing the viability of using latest generation mobile phone technology to link to special PCs installed inside its automobiles.

Some experts predict—existing research not withstanding-- that carmakers will most likely opt for an application of a system known as dedicated short-range communications, or DSRC, something similar to the system used by automatic toll-taking equipment.

Experts may have varied opinions on which technology is best suited to dashboard information delivery, but most agree, given the substantial investment required, that it will be several years before drivers in the U.S. are cruising the highways in networked autos.


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