SEATTLE -- Wouldn't you rather check your e-mail, get directions, show movies to the kids and listen to digital music files than sit in traffic, staring at the road and listening to the radio?
Technology companies and car companies think so, as they develop more advanced navigation and entertainment systems that are becoming personal computers for automobiles -- or "auto PCs" -- that they hope will gain traction among tech-savvy drivers.
With flat-panel displays, global positioning satellites, DVD video and cheaper computing power, drivers will be able to recreate their offices and living rooms while on the go, manufacturers say.
"More and more people want their commuting time to be informative, entertaining and productive," said Gonzalo Bustillos, who heads marketing at Microsoft Corp.'s Automotive Business Unit.
The world's largest software maker is betting it will play a role in the coming years beyond desktop PCs, a market it dominates with its Windows operating system.
Commuters in the United States spend more than 550 million hours per week in their cars, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, making the automobile a virtual second home for many people.
While many are content with just listening to the radio, others are trying to bring their work into the car and keep children entertained with movies in the back seat.
So far, however, the auto PC market is still geared toward technophiles and early adopters with deep pockets.
Clarion Co. Ltd.'s Joyride system, which is powered by Microsoft software, is a car audio system in the dashboard that includes a DVD player, the ability to play MP3 digital music files, controls for a CD changer and a flat-panel display as well as a navigation system.
The complete system can cost several thousands of dollars, taking up a good chunk of the value of the car itself.
German luxury automobile maker BMW rolled out its new 7 Series line of cars last year with arguably the industry's most advanced telematics, or car computing systems, that also use Microsoft's software.
Using a central knob, drivers can control the BMW's navigation, climate and entertainment systems through a display built into the dashboard.
To address concerns over the safety of operating a complex system in a moving car, many features of the auto PC can be used with voice recognition. Equipment makers usually turn off text e-mail display or the video from a DVD when the car is moving.
STUCK IN HIGH GEAR?
Auto PCs also seem to be facing a dilemma -- do they represent too much technology too soon?
While the BMW system turned heads, it also irked some drivers who didn't want to learn to use a complex operating system to control their car's basic functions, said Daniel Hodgson, senior vice president of merchandising at Crutchfield Corp., the largest U.S. car audio retailer.
"We've generally been underwhelmed by the level of interest among customers," Hodgson said.
Hodgson said that while Crutchfield tries to encourage the use of new technology, such as the auto PC system and navigation systems, many drivers appear to be content with having a good audio system in their cars.
Microsoft, which has been trying to get its software into cars since 1995, admits it hasn't been easy to convince drivers that they need yet another computer in their cars.
That may change, however, with new concepts such as "G-Book," an auto PC system developed jointly by Microsoft and Toyota Motor Corp. for cars in Japan. "G-Book" lets drivers access information on the Web, control their home appliances and sing karaoke in their cars -- for a monthly fee.
Indeed, delivering entertainment is becoming a key strategy for auto PC developers, rather than trying to bring e-mail and work-related functionality into cars.
"It's about entertainment," Hodgson said. "Consumers are are more willing to pay for that, as we've seen with satellite radio systems."
Microsoft said it will introduce a new version of its software platform for automobiles this spring, which will include technology to let the auto PC and other devices work closely together.
"From there, we will begin to announce more automakers signing up to use our technology to build their in-car infotainment devices," Bustillos said.
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