DETROIT - The gold rush is on.
The world's largest automakers have adopted a common technical standard to foster the rapid introduction of hardware and software for mobile entertainment, computing and communications.
At a Detroit conference last week, the Automotive Multimedia Interface Collaboration, or AMIC, signed off on the new plug-and-play standard.
General Motors, Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., DaimlerChrysler AG and Renault SA signed the deal. Eight other automakers are expected to sign within days and most others within two months.
For the first time, suppliers of consumer electronics, cellular telephones, software and Internet services can develop products tailored to a standard vehicle network.
Cell phones, pagers, multimedia computers and hand-held computers are a few of the products people will be able to plug into their vehicles.
Nobody knows how big the market could be, but estimates range from $65 billion to several times as much.
TIME TO LET GO
Automakers are loosening their control of electronics networks because they have to. By nature cautious and obsessed with liability risks, car companies nevertheless understand that they need to adapt more quickly to changing technologies.
While automakers may spend two to four years to develop a new vehicle, the shelf life of a consumer electronics product might be only six months.
For automakers, the choice is clear: Either find a way safely to open vehicles to these new information-age products or wait for electronics or computer makers to do it.
'If we don't make cars a platform for features people have in their home, someone else is going to figure that out,' said David Acton, chief vehicle engineer for GM's OnStar.
That sentiment was echoed by Gonzalo Bustillos, business development manager for Intel Corp.
'It's up for grabs,' he said. 'The ones who move in Internet time will win.'
The Automotive Multimedia Interface Collaboration set forth design objectives that detail how new electronics products should work in vehicles. These, in turn, are to be codified into a set of SAE or ISO specifications for suppliers and automakers. The goal is to set up a common communications network that will spur new product development.
That has happened in the personal computer industry, where de facto standards set by Microsoft Corp.'s Windows software and Intel Corp.'s hardware spurred a sales boom.
The Automotive Multimedia Interface Collaboration has designed a software gateway - or firewall - to separate the functions of multimedia devices from the vehicle's engine control and safety-related electronics. Auto-makers want to make sure that if someone's hand-held computer or cell phone goes haywire in an instrument panel docking station, it won't cause the car's antilock brakes to lock up at 70 mph.
Even though an open electronics network will speed the introduction of new products, automakers will expect suppliers to meet quality and durability standards, said Scott Andrews, a general manager in Toyota's electronics engineering division.
Said Andrews: 'We really don't have the luxury of putting something on a car for 10 years that doesn't work.'
According to the Automotive Multimedia Interface Collabor-ation's preliminary timetable, the first vehicles to be equipped with the new electronics network likely will appear by late 2002. But because the technical requirements are now available, any automaker could speed up that timetable, Acton said.
Even without the standard, automakers were starting to add proprietary communications gear to their vehicles.
For example, several luxury carmakers now offer factory-installed navigation systems. Cadillac plans to introduce its first navigation system later this fall on the redesigned 2000 DeVille, according to sources familiar with the division's plans. The system will be supplied by Denso International Corp.
Meanwhile, Clarion Corp. of America introduced a $1,300 aftermarket multimedia computer in January. Delphi Automotive Sys-tems Corp. unveiled a line of original-equipment prototypes at the SAE International Congress and Exposition in March in Detroit, and Visteon Automotive Systems will introduce an aftermarket computer this year.
Many multimedia devices will appear first in the aftermarket, giving dealers a shot at new business. Earlier this year, Visteon introduced a dealer-installed, $1,200 Nintendo-equipped entertainment system. Later, the system may be offered as a factory-installed option.
But multimedia devices are still too pricey for the mass market. Lexus, for example, now offers a navigation system as a $2,250 option, and customers are required to buy a sunroof and leather seats to get it.
A basic in-car computer that handles traffic information, emergency calls or route guidance should cost no more than $200, said Richard Benbough, a technical specialist with Ford in Dunton, England. During a recent industry conference in Washington, Benbough said automakers are reluctant to boost car prices to install whiz-bang electronics that the mass market does not really want.
'It's very important that we don't let technology run away from our customers,' he said.
Still, as competition heats up, prices should decline rapidly. Intel, Microsoft Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., IBM, Nokia AB and Ericsson Inc. sent representatives to the conference last week in Detroit.
With the new electronics, motorists will be able to tap into news, information and entertainment transmitted over cell phone or satellite networks.
On-board computers will be able to download e-mail, check stock prices and tap into news services.
Just about anything currently available on the Internet eventually will be accessible in vehicles. And auto companies hope to use proprietary services such as GM's OnStar to deliver these services.
'For us, the consumer contact is integral to the product itself,' said Rodney Williams, OnStar's director of marketing services.
Venture capitalists and Internet entrepreneurs already are taking aim at the plugged-in vehicle, said Brook Lang, founder of InfoMove.com Inc. in Redmond, Wash.
'The new poster child for the Internet is mobile computing,' he said. 'The frenzy is now.'
InfoMove.com is one of those businesses that hopes to move information from the Internet to vehicles.
Lang said he was discussing a business venture with OnStar but declined to offer details.