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Convergence has been one of the key watchwords in computing for years now. But while nobody was looking, all those converging computers started marching out to your garage.

Convergence has been one of the key watchwords in computing for years now. But while nobody was looking, all those converging computers started marching out to your garage. Ever since the first computerized automotive components were introduced, electronic technology has invaded the auto industry as rapidly and comprehensively as it’s invaded our homes.

Computer-enhanced cars came into their own in response to the mid-’90s Clean Air Act, which required onboard diagnostic systems to regulate exhaust emissions. The efficiency of microchips didn’t escape Detroit, and subsequent models quickly added computerized power steering, airbags, and maintenance functions. As a result, the typical new car has at least 50 microprocessors managing engine performance.

But most of that computing power isn’t meant to be noticed, let alone tailored to personal taste, by the consumer; special equipment beyond the reach of shade-tree mechanics is needed to decipher diagnostic codes stored in cars’ memory banks. What consumers can control are the items that enhance the driving experience–products that make it easier to get where they want to go and keep them entertained along the way.

When it comes to the computerized car, consumers are clamoring after three things: safety, entertainment, and communication. All three strands are poised to come into their own, and some products are already attempting to combine all three worlds into one. Take Pioneer’s AVIC-N1 ($2,200), which is touted as the first audio/video/navigation system that merges entertainment, information, and vehicle dynamics technologies. The head unit will direct you to more than 12 million map points of interest, all the while occupying rear-seat passengers with DVD videos or playing satellite radio, MP3 or CD. It also offers vehicle diagnostics to monitor performance in areas such as acceleration and lateral G-force.

But maybe we should let the driver worry about safety and security. What are the passengers supposed to do when license-plate bingo has run its course? Listen to music and watch movies, of course.

Digital audio was meant to be deployed in cars, and one automaker after another is seeing to it that no longer will you need to endure talk-radio blather for the duration of your cross-country trip: Mercedes-Benz USA is providing a fully integrated Sirius satellite radio service as a dealer-installed option on most of its 2005 models; Apple’s iPod can now be played in several 2002 or later BMWs; and within a couple of years, new models that come with MP3 players (just pop in that data disc) and line-in jacks for various outboard audio equipment will be as ho-hum as a standard cassette player was a decade ago. With 5.1 surround sound already included in some high-buck vehicles, it’s only a matter of time before the entertainment systems in many people’s cars are nicer than the ones in their homes.

Numerous 2005 models offer optional DVD players, but just as in car audio, there’s also a big push toward aftermarket video players–they’re almost always cheaper, and they’re often better. Alpine’s IVA-D300 Mobile Multimedia Station ($1,900) connects to a host of peripherals, including to an iPod. Rosen Entertainment Systems’ A9 rear-seat system ($1,650) is an overhead unit that combines a CD/DVD/MP3/MPEG player with a display for DVD viewing, and its forthcoming A10 will include video-game compatibility.

Now and later

For some people, the most dazzling item on their dashboard is the electronic FM radio tuner. They might be surprised to learn that when it comes to the computerized car, the future is now. Consider the following features, all of which are available as pricey options on some cars (or standard equipment on some pricey cars); the typical 2009 model will almost undoubtedly include most if not all of these:

— voice-activated satellite navigation;

— infrared heat sensors that will pick out that bicyclist in the dark up ahead before the naked eye ever could;

— in-dash LCD and joystick controls;

— streaming satellite on-demand video;

— real-time traffic updates displayed on your windshield;

— windshield-mounted cameras that track road-lane stripes and jolt you back on course if you start to stray from your lane unintentionally;

— highly efficient manual gearboxes with electronic clutch control;

— data projectors that unobtrusively display dashboard info on your windshield, taking away potentially hazardous “glance time”;

— tracking systems that will tell the authorities your car has been stolen before you’re even aware that it’s happened;

— “smart” active cruise control that allows the car to all but drive itself;

— steerable xenon headlights that know to turn before the wheel does; and

— Bluetooth-equipped mobile phones.

A number of high-end vehicles ($30,000 and up) are already offering a number of these features to those who don’t mind prying open their wallets a little wider. Acura’s TL series ($33,000 and up) offers integrated Bluetooth, five-channel CD/DVD audio, and a top-notch nav system as standard equipment. And Hummer has worked with Visteon to make its H2 ($52,000 and up) into a wireless connectivity concept vehicle that features vehicle access to your home security system, in-vehicle wireless charging stations, an advanced vehicle security system a full-bore entertainment system, and, as the cherry on a very expensive sundae, a removable, headrest-mounted wireless laptop PC.

But such a super-vehicle isn’t likely to remain the sole domain of the leisure class for long. Already, the granddaddy of high-tech cars, Toyota’s Prius hybrid, is retailing for less than $20,000–and that includes a Bluetooth-enabled system for your cell phone, electronic vehicle-stability control, remote entry and starting, an LCD touchscreen that controls everything from the stereo to the interior climate, and the latest GPS technology.

The combination of cheaper and more sophisticated technology conjures up a utopian vision of a cheap, super-safe, high-performance, low-emission vehicle loaded with fun gadgets, and all of it driven by computer technology. That ultimate vehicle might not come to pass, but all the elements are already in place for an affordable computerized car to be sitting pretty in your driveway before long.

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