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Rumble Seat


The annual Detroit Auto Show reflects American culture insofar as 90 percent of the offerings are junk and not worth attention. No one, as far as I can tell, cares that Acura will build a new sport-utility vehicle (to compete with archrival Lexus' RX300) except people who own Honda/Acura stock. Volkswagen debuted a luxury pickup-ute concept vehicle. For this I rolled out of a nice warm hotel bed? I'm missing Pokémon.

Still, there is that other 10 percent. And this year, Detroit showcased some remarkable technologies that will deeply affect our relationship with the automobile, and indeed will indicate whether we want one at all.

Consider Ford's breathtaking charge into Internet connectivity and digital information on wheels. Displayed in what the company calls 24-7 concept vehicles (24 hours a day, seven days a week), Ford's new technology offers personalized, voice-recognition Internet access inside the vehicle; computer-voiced e-mail; cell phone; navigational aid; weather information; and a lot of customized digital services, from your favorite radio stations to streaming MP3s.

According to Ford executives J Mays, vice president of design, and CEO Jac Nassar, the automobile will soon become less a vehicle of acceleration rates and cornering loads than one of baud rates and downloads--a rolling "portal" to the customer's personal cyberworld.

I kid you not. They really said that.

All 2001 Lincoln models will offer voice-recognition telematics, including optional Internet access. Ford plans to team up with Yahoo to provide each member of the car's family--note the curious role-reversal--his or her own personalized Web page. In the concept cars--bizarrely rhomboidal vehicles whose odd plainness underscores the interior life of the concept--information was displayed on a single large flat panel. Instrumen-tation, radio and climate controls and all the other old-fashioned buttons and switches were replaced with luminous projections of status indicators controlled by voice-recognized commands.

Ford's both-feet leap into absolute connectivity for the automobile is a bold and possibly hazardous agenda. Hazardous for Ford because, their well-paid futurists notwithstanding, it remains to be seen if Americans, or anybody else in large numbers, want the sanctuary of the commuting automobile to be overrun by the wired world.

Perhaps they, and we, do. The automobile is, after all, very much a 20th-century object, operating on what seems now quite ordinary and quaint combustion technology. What cachet can spark plugs and crankcases hope to hold in the face of inundations of digital fact and fiction, the swelling and swirling cascade of connected data? It seems entirely possible that the automobile machine disappears in plain sight as the experience of personal mobility becomes vivid with all the colors of the cyber-rainbow. Think of it this way: When we make breakfast, we notice the toast, not the toaster.

To children born today, our fetishistic attachment to the smoky, greasy automobile may seem 25 years hence as dimly misguided as the Victorians' fascination with laxatives.

Connectivity is a hazardous idea also because driving requires a modicum of attention to perform safely. How many downloaded stock quotes will it take to distract a driver from the task at hand? Two? Twenty? What if he or she takes a big hit on the market? How good is that for car control? If we are busy answering our e-mail, can we hope to merge without incident every morning?

Of course, a similar argument arose when car radios were introduced in the '30s, but with car radios the interaction is all one-way. Our experience with cell phones gives us more reason to be wary of connectivity. Cell phones can and do distract drivers and do cause accidents and, yes, take lives. It's worth noting that in many European countries, it is illegal to operate a cell phone in a car, hands-free or otherwise.

Connectivity of the sort Ford is proposing amps up the level of driver distraction and diversion to what seems unhealthy levels. It would be better if we didn't drive at all.

And this, it seems to me, is the ground that is being prepared. For a decade, car manufacturers and the government have been working on intelligent highway systems, technology that takes control of the vehicle out of the driver's hands and into a vast traffic-management computer. We would get in our cars, pick up a digital link and set the car on autopilot. Such systems are already in place in Japan, and as congestion becomes more critical in places like Atlanta and Los Angeles, intelligent highways offer a singular solution by orchestrating traffic at the highest flow rates possible.

So why, you might well ask, would people not simply opt for mass transit? America--and certainly not the Triangle--will never have mass transit. The distribution and urbanization patterns have been literally set in concrete in the Age of the Automobile. But even more fundamental than that, the privacy and utter autonomy of the automobile--the serene pleasure of being blissfully alone on the drive to work, perhaps the only moment in most people's lives when they connect with themselves--have proven too valuable to surrender. In 25 years, our cars will be powered by fuel cells, steered and navigated by computers, and swamped with access to the digital world, but they will remain intensely personal spaces, compartments of time when we are again alone with ourselves.

They may not look the same, but there will always be cars.

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