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Technology to Detroit's rescue?

CNET's Brian Cooley says technology is the answer but most motor companies still don't get the message.

On top of all the arcane business problems they face, General Motors and Ford Motor also suffer from boring cars.

Factor out Cadillacs, F-Series trucks, Corvettes and Mustangs, and Detroit is handing us uninteresting vehicles. What could make their cars more interesting? More horsepower? No, almost every car today has an ample amount. Swoopier sheet metal? Nope. Regulations, litigation and fuel efficiency demands have put an end to really gorgeous cars. No, the way to inject excitement and fascination back into American cars is to return them to their leadership in technology innovation, a position they once gripped tightly.

It was the American carmakers who brought us waves of new tech over the last century--automatic transmissions, air conditioning, self-dimming high beams, hemispherical combustion chambers, sequential tail lights, the WonderBar radio and, yes, even the hoary old V-8-6-4 engine. (Hey, I at least applaud the attempt.)

But mention the phrase "technologically advanced car" today and I believe most consumers will imagine a Japanese or German product.

Listen up

Charles Cooper chats with CNET car watchers Brian Cooley and Wayne Cunningham about Detroit's uneasy relationship with Silicon Valley.
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Detroit needs to get back in front of the parade. Their potential customers spend many hours and many dollars shopping for technology products. On weekends they stroll the aisles of Best Buy for sport. They wear a Sam Browne's worth of gadgets around their plump waistlines. They can tell you the specs on their iPod, digital camera, HDTV, broadband connection, smart phone and TiVo. Ask about their American car and they mostly recall the rebate it came with.

To realign themselves with our love for innovation, here are some right-now technologies (all home-grown in America, by the way) U.S. carmakers can and should get in front of:

HD Radio
Developed by U.S. firm Ibiquity (which itself was formed by the merger of two homegrown U.S. predecessors), HD Radio takes our current broadcast radio stations from analog to digital, retaining their existing dial position. It delivers digital clarity that makes FM sound like a CD and AM sound like FM. It also creates a secondary channel for each station to offer a "version B" of itself. The radio industry--a medium with higher penetration than TV or the Internet-?is all over it.

Navigation with traffic
In-dash nav systems are a dud. But add live traffic information and they become the antidote to America's favorite water cooler bitch session topic: traffic jams. Just a few carmakers currently offer in-dash nav with live traffic; Ford and GM could yet steal the thunder if they move fast and use their considerable weight to encourage improvements in the data sensor infrastructure. Check out Pioneer's new AVIC Z-1 for a glimpse of a live traffic nav unit that also has important learning ability.

A great control surface
I've driven BMW's iDrive, Audi's MMI and the Infiniti Controller. Let me tell you there is still plenty of fertile ground to capture in the area of the definitive vehicle interface. Just like American companies standardized the PRNDL column-mounted gear lever, we can sort out this new control surface mess. Note to Ford: Your spin-off Visteon has a very interesting control surface in its TACNET line for cop cars. Check it out.

A new OnStar
Instead of positioning OnStar as the system that helps the feckless when they lock their keys in the car or drive off the road for no apparent reason, GM could reposition it as a source of useful daily information and assistance. Use its network and brand equity to create a really comprehensive drivers' information service that doesn't require a tedious call to a live adviser. Drivers could get restaurant reviews and reservations, store promotions, movie reviews, schedules and ticketing--all powered by audio content and geotargeting-?and without the cumbersome chat with an OnStar operator unless necessary. I'm not versed in the network technology that underlies OnStar, but I suspect it can do things that are sexy, not just prudent. As it is, having OnStar just makes you feel like a dork who needs adult supervision, not a technology adopter.

In-car TV
I'm going out on a limb with this one, but I think there is a significant market for in-car TV (for rear-seat passengers, of course.) Rear-seat DVD systems are nice, but having to shuttle DVDs back and forth from the car is archaic. There is great traction to be found in live TV on the road. KVH and RaySat currently offer antennas that tune DirecTV and DISH. And both are developing low-profile antennas that don't look like they belong on a bus, perhaps even hiding inside a vehicle's headliner, which then opens the door to becoming factory options. They're probably pounding on doors in Detroit right now; take their meetings.

Car entertainment hub
I dreamed of a wireless, smart entertainment hub for cars in a previous column, and immediately heard veiled references from several manufacturers that they're working on it. Get in front of the introduction of such a system. It will create a new state of seamless integration between our personal portables and our cars, two classes of products that people are avid about.

No one of these is going to reposition Detroit overnight, but a consistent and persistent pursuit of such high-touch, in-car tech will over time restore to American car brands something they offered when I was a kid: the latest and the greatest.