Cars, electronics making sweet music

The Eclipse CD7200 mkII CD tuner is displayed at the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show Jan. 5, 2008, in Las Vegas.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Try though you might it's gonna be tough to avoid hearing something about the Consumer Electronics Show this week. Not just because the exhibition sprawls over almost 2 million square-feet of prime Las Vegas convention space, either. There are also thousands of reporters there to tell us about the newest gadgets we didn't know we needed.

There's a special emphasis this year on cars and all the fun electronics being built for the road. In fact, the head of General Motors, Rick Wagoner, is going to make a keynote speech on the high-tech car of the future. But Marketplace's Bob Moon found out plenty of electronic gadgets-on-wheels are already here.


BOB MOON: The "Final Frontier" for the car-making universe could turn out to be consumer electronics gadgetry. If you haven't noticed, some of us are now barking out commands to our on-board computer, much like Captain Kirk and his successors:

STAR TREK DIALOGUE:: "Computer, request security procedure." ... "Computer, status report." ... "Computer, activate emergency medical holographic program."

Well, forget talking to the "computer." With Ford Motor Company's popular new system called "Sync" -- developed with Microsoft -- you address your iPod or other music players:

Sync Demo: "User device." (Chime) "USB. Please say a command." (Chime) ... "Play track -- Big Jazz." "Playing track -- Big Jazz."

Automakers and the consumer electronics industry are making sweet music together.

DAVID COLE: It's time to fasten your seat belts, because I think what we're seeing is a revolution as these two amazingly important industries begin to collide and merge.

David Cole heads the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. He says music interfaces and GPS navigation units are just the start.

DAVID COLE: Things that a few years ago we would have said was essentially impossible in a surprisingly short time are going to probably be routine and fairly inexpensive.

New gadgets will give you real-time traffic information along with your directions. They'll point you to the cheapest gas. And they'll read your e-mail to you.

Detroit has been exploring this kind of high-tech gadgetry for many years. It's taken General Motors nearly a decade to make inroads with its navigation and emergency help system.

ONSTAR VOICE: Connecting to OnStar.

These days, GM is offering its pioneering system on a much wider variety of models, not just luxury cars. Chrysler just introduced a navigation and entertainment system it's dubbed "MyGig."

David Cole says it makes sense to cater to a broad base of customers who've grown up staying connected. He says it's no accident that Ford is offering the Sync system on its Focus model.

COLE: A car more likely to be purchased by a younger person. So they are recognizing this generational difference that is key. The ability to customize and fit every person's needs is very important.

Cole says Detroit automakers might even have an edge, for the moment, on their Japanese rivals.

COLE: I think they're back in the game, big-time. Of course, there's nothing like impending hanging to create a sense of urgency, and that's what we have seen in the last few years in Detroit.

The gizmos that are attracting all this attention are relatively cheap. David Thomas is an automotive reviewer at Cars.com. He doesn't think the automakers will make much money selling these systems. Mainly, he says, they're hoping the hot new electronic add-ons will lure you into the showroom. If that sounds more like the way iPods are sold, Thomas says maybe that's what Detroit needs: A more rapid turnover rate by car buyers.

DAVID THOMAS: You know, if carmakers could get them doing that every three years on a purchase, they'd be very happy. The average is every five years right about now.

And if Thomas is any indicator of the 30-something market, Detroit just might be on the right track. He got to drive a Sync-equipped car for two weeks before he had to give it back:

THOMAS: I missed it. You know, I was kind of bummed. I wanted that to be in every car. You know, besides the awe of it, knowing every single artist, weird artist name, which I couldn't believe. Afterwards you were like, "Boy, I really miss that system."

Thomas says some dealerships have told him customers are asking for the new high-tech systems, without knowing exactly which car they want. Detroit definitely seems to be on to something.

In Los Angeles, I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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