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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 enables people to download movies, music and games from the Internet, just like a cellular phone. It also incorporates twin slots that hold MP3 players and a projector in its cabin roof, enabling it to show movies.

"This effectively turns the car into an entertainment system when it's parked," Jim Farley, chief executive of Toyota's Scion division, said at a news conference to introduce the concept auto.

Under the hood
The inner workings of cars are also changing, thanks to electronics. It's now commonplace for vehicles to include numerous sensors to measure wheel speed, steering-wheel angle and other factors. High-speed networks connect these sensors to each other and to various computer modules to compare complex data, creating the equivalent of a nervous system and a brain (or two or three) for each car. This information can be used to create computer fail-safe mechanisms such as a dynamic stability control that kicks in when a driver's reflexes fail.

"The natural progression of that is to have the systems start talking to each other," said John Heinricy, director of high-performance vehicle operations at General Motors. Things like shock damping can thus be automatically adjusted around a driver's steering inputs, improving handling, he said.

Ultimately, car computer systems can start to predict what might happen, allowing them to get an auto ready to take action to help a driver avoid a crash. "There are some things that a driver might not know that you (as car designers) know more about," Heinricy said.

Many of the systems would most likely be optional, allowing drivers to turn them off or to select from different modes, such as one for driving in the snow or one for aggressive, on-track driving.

There's also some way to go before stability control and other active systems reach every model. Many of the most computer-centric autos still sell at premium prices. BMW's latest 3 Series sports sedans, which made their debut at the show, come standard with dynamic stability control. They start at about $30,000.

But over time, safety aids such as dynamic stability control, active cruise control and collision avoidance systems, as well as navigation systems, will work their way into less pricey autos--either as standard equipment or as an option, auto executives said at the show.

GM, for one, is moving in that direction, Heinricy said.

"We have a plan to put stability...on all of our cars in the very near future," he said.

Changing to dash-top?
Liquid crystal displays (LCDs), satellite radio and MP3 players are all along the road ahead as well.

Nearly every major car manufacture now offers satellite radio as an option on at least a few models, and many are also moving to add MP3 player connectors to their stereo systems.

Hyundai this week trumped competitors by announcing that it will include XM Satellite Radio receivers as standard equipment in several of its 2006 models and in all 2007 vehicles.

Hyundai would not comment on its plans for MP3 player connectors. However, almost every auto model is expected to offer some type of MP3 player link in the next few years.

Mazda, for one, gets several e-mails per week asking for an iPod slot in its Mazda3 sedan, said Robert Davis, the company's senior vice president of marketing and product development. It aims to add an MP3 player connector to its cars next year, he said.

GM, Nissan and Volvo all announced plans to begin offering connectors for Apple Computer iPods earlier this year. BMW was the first to make that link in 2004.

Those connectors may become obsolete, however, as cars may simply come with embedded hard drives. Those would let people download and store their own music, movies or other files, auto executives said.

"I don't see why you couldn't have a 20-, 40-, 80-gigabyte hard drive in the radio and download music directly, with proper licensing," Heinricy said.

Possibly the greatest users of silicon are hybrid gasoline-electric cars. Toyota's fourth-generation hybrid gas-electric drive train, found in its forthcoming Highlander Hybrid and Lexus RX400h, uses a total of six processors in three separate control boxes, said David Hermance, executive engineer in Toyota's Environmental Engineering group. That set-up includes controllers for its regenerative braking system linked to a high-speed bus.

Toyota hybrids can start driving with the electric motor and switch the gas engine on and off, using the brakes to help charge the batteries. Their computer systems control when the gas engine switches on, for example. At the same time, they work to mask the transitions between electricity and gas to make driving the hybrid feel just like any other car.

The Highlander Hybrid will get nearly 30 miles to the gallon in average driving. Not only does the computer system make that possible, it also "makes for a better overall driving experience," Hermance said. "It makes the hybridization more transparent."

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi has fitted its forthcoming all-wheel-drive Lancer Evolution IX sports sedan with a series of sensors to measure things such as yawing, as well as a special active center differential. It all is designed to route the car's engine power to whichever tires have the most grip at a given moment.

"There's a host of sensors throughout the vehicle, and the sensors provide feedback to the ECC," or engine control computer, said Brian Arnett, manager of product strategy for Mitsubishi Motors North America. "The whole car is constantly monitoring the conditions the driver is engaged in."

No matter whether they're seeking to lower fuel consumption or to increase performance, manufactures thus will continue to incorporate more computer technology in order to give their cars an edge.