Gadget FreakAuto Technology: Same Gear, New Services

You may drive a sporty new car with the latest in gizmotronics, but to your kids (and grandkids) it will look like a Stanley Steamer. At last November's Los Angeles Car Show, eight major carmakers rolled out their visions of how vehicles will look in 50 years. Trust me, these 2057 models really look nothing like your old '57 Chevy.

For example: The Nissan OneOne will pick up your dry cleaning or drop the children off at school--no driver required. GM-OnStar's ANT will feature an onboard quantum computer, use car-to-car communications to avoid traffic jams, and fold up like a piece of origami when parked.

Even if none of those wild scenarios come to pass, our cars certainly will get smarter and better connected--they're already on their way. But the biggest changes to car tech for 2008 will be near your seat, with better Web connectivity and access to more data services.

GPS Plus

Instead of new auto gear, we'll see more services delivered to the gear we already have, says Eric Larsen, director of marketing for Mio Technology. For example, Mio's Digiwalker C720t GPS (US$599) device can now deliver real-time traffic updates from Clear Channel. Ford's 2009 Lincoln MKS sedan will soon offer Sirius Travel Link, which serves up traffic, weather, fuel prices, and movie listings to the car's built-in navigation system.

Every GPS device I've ever tested has had the same flaw: Its database of local banks, restaurants, and gas stations is way out-of-date. Dash Navigation's Express GPS fixes that by maintaining a permanent Internet connection using either a cellular network or Wi-Fi access points. Tell the Express to find the nearest pizza joint, and it will run a Yahoo Local search, then display the freshest possible info. It can also pull weather, news, movie listings, and custom RSS feeds straight off the Net.

Even groovier, the Express turns your car into a sensor for real-time traffic data. So if you run into a slowdown on I-40, say, the Express transmits your sudden loss of velocity to the Dash servers, which alert other Dash drivers to prepare for delays or select alternate routes. If no other Dash users are on your stretch of highway, the device employs historical traffic patterns to predict delays, says Gina Bender, director of communications for Dash. The Dash Express should be available by the time you read this for $600 plus a monthly service plan.

Deals on Wheels

That's only the beginning. Over the next few years, GPS services will evolve from providing simple location data to supplying personalized recommendations on things happening around town, says Mio's Larsen. Instead of merely finding the closest pizza place, you'll be alerted when your favorite band is playing nearby and have the chance to buy tickets en route.

Of course, all this stuff isn't free. Real-time traffic and news costs US$5 to US$15 a month now, depending on the service provider and your plan. Concierge services will likely cost more. IDC estimates that location-based services will generate more than US$3 billion in revenues by 2010, and advertising is likely to account for a sizable chunk. For example, you might receive offers for a free latte when nearing a Starbucks, says Larsen. The only question is whether such services will drive you toward better decisions or merely drive you crazy.

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Dan Tynan

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