The only audio technology that compares to the ubiquity of the car radio is the cell phone. New research by Bridge Ratings
suggests that the cell phone will equal radio's market penetration of around 93 percent. Add to that this year's rapid adoption of 3G networks
that are great at streaming--coupled with cheap, unlimited data plans--and you have a potential disaster for radio broadcasters.
Speaking of distractions,
DVD navigation systems may be more dangerous than paper maps! A survey by Privilege Insurance
in the United Kingdom found 19 percent of people using a DVD nav system took their mind off their driving, compared with a fewer 17 percent who use paper maps. And in either mode, motorists tend to take their eyes off the road for 10 seconds at a time to look at directions. At 60mph, that covers the length of two football fields without looking. It makes complete sense, though, since navigation systems have things such as points of interest (POI), changing displays, and lots of shiny buttons to play with. They are nothing more than video games with a useful purpose. Are we surprised by this report?
Buy a nav, get a fat behind. TomTom has just added all Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins stores to its POI database. All you have to do is hit a couple of buttons, and each store is highlighted by a logo. This actually points to a useful trend in navigation systems: Branded icons for things such as stores, gas stations, and restaurants are safer than generic icons you have to click or zoom on; at a glance, you can digest what's available, drawing on the instant recognition that a national brand carries.
I kind of hate to see this: TomTom and a company called MAD (Motor Adventure Destinations) have created map databases of interesting road trips that were previously offered only on MAD's paper maps. That means anyone with a TomTom GO can plot their journey by the most interesting route--not just the fastest route, which has so far been the extent of the sterile world of GPS navigation. MAD says its database is loaded with scenic back roads, fuel stops in the boonies, cool roadside eateries, and other attractions that locals wish they could keep quiet. I bet they even know about Tony's in Marshall, California.
Plastic doors were one big reason Saturn got the reputation as the car for people who don't like cars. It just made the car seem like an appliance. Well, you better get used to it. New regulations being put in place around the world require that cars become impact-friendly when hitting a pedestrian--and that will bring about the production of many cars with plastic hoods and fenders, which have a lot more give than steel. Europe has the new regulations now, Japan will start getting them in 2007, and the United States won't be able to avoid them because product-liability lawyers would use the foreign regulations to portray U.S. carmakers as negligent.
Let's face it--hybrids don't make sense. At least not in today's hype environment, where premium prices are paid and gas prices have moderated. So here comes Honda with plans to make a cheaper one. The Japan-market Honda Fit should get a hybrid power train and a list price for less than 12 grand, a mere 14 percent premium over a gas car. And since Honda hybrids haven't achieved the cult status of the Toyota Prius, there should be some haggling room on that price. We haven't seen the Fit here in the United States yet, but it's coming.
GM Shanghai'd itself. The General has just moved its vehicle-electronics purchasing department out of Detroit to Shanghai, according to Automotive News. This is a big move, and it indicates GM sees the bulk of its in-car electronics coming from China indefinitely. All of GM's other buying departments are staying in Michigan, which makes this move that much more dramatic. By 2010, the electronics in a new car will make up an astonishing 40 percent of its value. And you wonder why CNET now reviews cars.
With all the automotive tech that's available, are cars becoming too complex?
We love the DLO TransPod, a really great FM transmitter for using your iPod in the car. Now DLO is offering them through Volvo dealers specifically to fit the S40, the V50, and the XC90. The Volvo TransPod mounts on the dash and has a tidy, hardwired 12-volt line instead of a nasty cord running over to the cigarette lighter. It costs $139 plus installation--all in all, it sounds like the Volvo TransPod will run at least $250 installed. That's a lot of money for an $80 device.
Dumb branding, cool box. Microsoft and KVH just brought me the prototype "MSN TV service on KVH's Mobile Internet Receiver," which cheats itself by just sounding like TV for the car. It's actually broadband and computing for your car, which is much more interesting. For less than $1,000, you can have this box installed in your vehicle; it includes a thin client computer, an integrated Wi-Fi router, an EV-DO broadband cellular card, and a GUI optimized for the LCDs in your car. You can surf, check e-mail, look at digital photos, and yes, stream TV clips. You work it via a wireless keyboard, and it has nothing in common with KVH's existing rooftop satellite dish for cars (which is strictly a niche product), except that it will be sold and installed by the same dealers. We'll hammer the production model in July.