DETROIT - The first cell phones, compact-disc players and videocassette recorders were clunky, over-priced and erratic.
The first in-vehicle computers probably will be no exception.
Later this year, the electronics aftermarket will introduce computers with Internet linkups for e-mail, traffic advisories, route guidance and news.
But motorists can forget about surfing the Internet - at least for now.
Dozens of hardware and software suppliers are pushing to introduce a variety of aftermarket products this year.
Some luxury vehicles are expected to have Internet hookups as original equipment in 1999.
Judging by the products displayed during the annual Intelligent Transportation Society conference here earlier this month, suppliers are gambling heavily on two assumptions: The industry must:
1. Offer a variety of services so motorists can customize their computers.
2. Make Internet access very simple - and very limited - for the motorist's own safety.
The reason for bundled services is simple: Motorists will fork out $1,000-plus for hardware only if they can get a variety of services, such as e-mail, route guidance, news, weather and traffic advisories.
As the cost of hardware goes down, suppliers will make money through monthly service fees. Eventually, on-board computer hardware could be like cellular phones, which are practically given away as come-ons to customers.
UP TO DATE
The concept of customized computers is equally important. Given the rapid pace of innovation, a computer will be outdated a few months after it is introduced. But motorists can upgrade computers with new software, then the systems can remain up to date.
That's the theory that Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash., is promoting with its operating system, Windows CE. In January, Microsoft announced that a coalition of 68 hardware and software designers were developing computer systems for cars and trucks.
Later this year, Clarion Corp. of America, based in Gardena, Calif., plans to unveil a $1,300 computer system programmed with Microsoft's Windows CE operating system to offer limited Internet access. Clarion says it will meet its original deadline to introduce Auto PC to the aftermarket in July.
But others say the company will delay its full-scale introduction. Microsoft spokeswoman Liza Santa Ana says the partners want to improve the system's ease of use.
'This is a pretty new technology,' she said. Customers 'have never really seen a product like this in the car. We want to make sure that it's customer friendly.'
According to another industry source, Clarion plans to release 1,000 pre-production versions in July, with a full-scale rollout in the fall.
The delay does not appear to worry Microsoft's other partners. For example, Cue Network Corp. of Irvine, Calif., is moving ahead with plans to offer e-mail transmitted by an FM radio signal.
The e-mail will be marketed as an add-on to Cue's current product, a nationwide paging service. On Clarion's small screen in the instrument panel, customers will read the first two lines of e-mail text, along with the sender's identity. Or, the customer will hear the first two lines of the message by a text to voice system. To obtain the rest of the message, the motorist needs to call Cue by cell phone.
The e-mail service will cost about $240 per year, while the traffic advisories will cost $60.
Cue uses an FM radio signal to transmit its paging service to 200,000 customers - many of them truckers. Cue also will offer real-time traffic advisories in 40 cities.
Other suppliers are cooking up their own Internet products. For example, Siemens Automotive of Auburn Hills, Mich., will market a wireless travel information system called Quick-Scout, which offers motorists navigation, traffic advisories, route guidance and limited Internet access.
A central computer calculates the motorist's desired route, then transmits directions by cell phone to the vehicle. This eliminates the need for a costly CD-ROM drive in the car, allowing Siemens to offer the system for about $750.
But the Siemens system is slower than more expensive competitors. Steve Brown, the senior engineer of Siemens' intelligent transportation division, says Quick-Scout calculates a route in 15 seconds.
The system will offer motorists e-mail, roadside assistance, plus a variety of news options, such as business, weather, sports and breaking news. Depending on the options, users will pay monthly fees of $15 to $24.
At first, Quick-Scout will offer e-mail in text only. The system identifies the sender and offers a brief description of the subject matter.
Siemens expects to offer Quick-Scout as original equipment for an unnamed automaker in the 2001 model year.