For auto suppliers and gadget companies eager to get a piece of the auto industry, the hottest chunk of vehicle real estate now is the center stack.
That corridor of interior space, running from the driver's right hip up through the center of the cockpit to the bottom of the windshield, has become a California gold rush of opportunity.
But it is less so for traditional suppliers of molded plastics, cables, levers, buttons and radios. Rather, that real estate is being staked out by many companies new to the industry, including software providers, camera makers, electronics firms and data integrators.
The growth of the smartphone -- which can connect the car to the Internet -- is driving rapid change in the car, especially in the head unit, or the central communications system.
"More of the value of the interior is being built around connectivity," says Jeff DeBest, group vice president for global electronics at Johnson Controls Inc., a supplier giant that makes billions on vehicle interiors. "More and more of it is the software component. The hardware almost becomes a commodity. The center stack is the hotbed for all this."
There is one big problem.
Safety advocates, from local law enforcement agencies to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, want consumers to have fewer distractions, not more.
Ray LaHood, the U.S. transportation secretary, is beating the drum to get the auto industry to resist adding features that are now technically possible. Cockpit distractions, such as text messaging and YouTube downloads, cause accidents, he says.
"Every single time someone takes their focus off the road -- even if just for a moment -- they put their lives and the lives of others in danger," LaHood said last year. "Distracted driving is unsafe, irresponsible, and, in a split second, its consequences can be devastating. There's no call or e-mail so important that it can't wait."
A showdown is coming. As a new era of potentially rich vehicle technology is opening up, the voices of safety are rising up to check it.