Twenty or thirty years from now, when auto museums put a vintage 1999 sedan on display, curators may hang a sign on the car that says 'The Unplugged Vehicle.'
Museum visitors will marvel: The 1999 sedan lacked a navigation system to route drivers away from traffic jams, icy roads and construction tie-ups.
There was no way to receive e-mail messages, download information from the Internet or get pictures of your daughter's latest masterpiece from her art teacher.
The car had cruise control but no collision-warning technology.
And how did people, trapped for hours every day in their vehicles, pass the time without hundreds of channels of digital TV and radio?
That glimpse of the future may not be so far-fetched, according to speakers at the Automotive News World Congress.
The vehicle industry is approaching a historic shift, brought about by the revolution in computer and communications technologies, said Ronald Knockeart, vice president for driver information systems at Siemens Automotive in Auburn Hills, Mich.
This revolution in information technology, he said, 'will foster change in ways we haven't imagined yet.'
Knockeart and other speakers outlined the digital future during a panel discussion on what are called intelligent transportation systems.
The term loosely describes technology used for two-way vehicle communication and the management of traffic through control systems built along roadways.
LONG WAY TO GO
To succeed, the intelligent transportation system industry needs to focus on some key areas.
Cost: Navigation systems, for example, are too expensive for a broader consumer market at current prices of $2,000 a unit. The price of the hardware needs to come down dramatically.
Reliability: The new technologies need much more work to elevate them to automotive-grade quality and durability. Consumers won't tolerate devices that are prone to glitches.
Value: The new vehicle communications tools and the information piped into the vehicle must be perceived by consumers as something that improves their overall driving experience.
In Europe, a population of some 150 million vehicles represents an enormous potential market for multimedia communications, said Jean-Francois Poupinel, CEO of Cofiroute. The company, based in Sevres, France, is a builder and operator of toll roads.
'Multimedia' in a vehicle refers to the integration of navigation, entertainment and communications in a single, dashboard-mounted device.
Poupinel said multimedia represents a market where 'we do not know what the limits are, if there are any.'
But picking winners among emerging technologies will be difficult. For one thing, no one is asking for this stuff yet.
'The problem is that the ITS market is far more technology-pushed than demand-pulled,' said Poupinel, who also is chairman of Ertico, Europe's intelligent transportation organization.
MARKETING THE SERVICES
For automakers, selling navigation systems or multimedia computers ultimately may become less important than marketing the services that will be piped into the vehicle.
To help jump-start the market, automakers may subsidize the cost of these information devices to accelerate the sale of subscription services for traffic information, news, entertainment and roadside assistance, said T. Russell Shields, chairman of Navigation Tech-nologies Corp., a leading supplier of map databases.
Subscription fees for General Motors or Ford Motor Co. could amount to as much as $1 billion in new net income by the end of the next decade, he said.
If navigation systems are any indicator, these new information technologies should grow rapidly from a small base of users. By 2005, about one-third of all new cars will have a navigation system, Shields predicted. That should increase to a 'large majority' of new vehicles by 2010, he said.
Navigation Technologies, which is based in Rosemont, Ill., supplies map databases for North America and Europe.
Last year, the company delivered about 50,000 units in the United States, and it expects a threefold increase in 1999, Shields said.
Still, he cautioned that navigation has a long way to go before it reaches the scale of a consumer market. With 200 million vehicles in the United States, shipping 150,000 or even 200,000 map databases still amounts to a tiny fraction of the market.
POPULAR IN JAPAN
In Japan, where navigation systems are popular, automakers began selling the devices without a lot of sophisticated market research, said Nobuo Yumoto, senior managing director of Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd. of Osaka. But drivers tried them and liked them. Now, consumers are buying about 100,000 navigation units a month, he said.
The growth of vehicle navigation and other onboard communications systems will allow greater integration with traffic-control networks engineered into the roadways of Japan, Yumoto said. Drivers, for example, now can equip their vehicles for automated toll-collection services. This technology one day also may be used to pay for time in parking decks or to gain access to school and business properties.
Yumoto said improvements in wireless technology also will allow for larger amounts of data to be streamed into vehicles. That would make possible, for example, live video images of oncoming road hazards, such as accidents.
Undoubtedly, these new in-vehicle devices represent a potential distraction, even a safety hazard, if not used prudently by drivers. But Yumoto said the trade-off for the distraction is reduced levels of traffic-induced anxiety and better use of time on the road.