Computers add fun, safety to concept cars

Soon you might have more computing power parked in your driveway than in your home office.

NEW YORK--These days, that new-car smell more than likely has a hint of silicon.

Mechanical engineering hasn't been pushed off pole position in the car industry--yet. But one glance at the 50 concept and production models on display here at the New York International Auto Show should be enough to convince even the most devout grease monkey that computers are increasingly in the driver's seat, when it comes to


What's new:
Computing power is rising in the car industry, as designers switch from mechanics to electronics in everything from accelerating and gear-shifting to braking.

Bottom line:
Dashboards will get all the functions of a desktop PC, including MP3 player connectors. Under the hood, computer chips and networking technologies aim to make new models safer and easier to drive as well as more fuel-efficient.

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cutting-edge automobile design. The show, previewed to journalists earlier this week, opened its doors to the public on Friday for 10 days of auto utopia.

Computing power is rising just as quickly as horsepower and other measures of performance in the industry, auto executives gathered here said. LCD-panel dashboards and MP3 connectors thus are expected to become much more widespread in new cars over the next few years. In addition, features such as "dynamic stability control," which aims to correct driving mistakes in real time, could become more prevalent, some predicted.

The result goes beyond mere gadgetry, as designers switch from mechanics to electronics in everything from accelerating and gear shifting to braking. That, in turn, is giving designers greater flexibility to rethink interfaces--with profound effects for interior space, experts said.

"Everything is blending into one unified theme. Aesthetically, that frees me to do more interesting things," said Anthony Prozzi, the designer behind the Meta One concept car, from Ford Motors' Mercury division. "I no longer have to design around a nasty black box," he added, referring to old analog radio components.

The most visible sign of the digital invasion is on the dashboard: Some of the concept vehicles include all the functions of a better-than-average desktop PC, from configurable screens to built-in MP3 player connectors. Meanwhile, under the hood, automakers are using more computer chips and networking technologies as they try to make new models safer and easier to drive, as well as more fuel-efficient.

NY Auto Show

The Meta One sports utility vehicle offers a notable example of how interiors are shifting as a result of digital evolution. The smooth, flowing design relies on recessed buttons to shift gears, replacing the stalks and other common controls that jut out in more traditional cars. It has three eye-level LCD screens that can be tailored to a driver's individual tastes and that show traditional gauges such as a speedometer or navigation information.

"The whole idea is that when you're in your car, you want a refuge--like a modern living room," said Prozzi, a former fashion designer. The Meta One "is a test bed to see if people are prepared for new technology. So far, everyone that's seen it says, 'Yes.'"

Scion's T2B concept car also has a computer-powered dash, which incorporates what the company calls an "electronic ticker tape." It

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