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Infomatics: The Best In-Car Technology
Not all that long ago, your author owned a car that had no working electronics. The engine had a carburetor and a mechanical ignition. What electronics it did have were broken ... another way of saying the radio didn't work. Unlike some of today's cars that will provide a complete weather forecast, then if I wanted to know the temperature, I rolled down the window.
Today, cars offer a dizzying array of features that can do almost anything a 21st century driver wishes. Most of these features are classified as "Infotainment", that modern intersection of Information and Entertainment. Currently, no one manufacturer offers everything, but read on to see who offers what today and if it's worth spending your money.
GM launched OnStar 12 years ago. It was the auto world's first experience with telematics. Using a wireless connection and GPS technology, GM crafted a powerful communications system that has saved thousands of lives. Early OnStar features were geared toward providing extra safety, but today OnStar is expanding services as more GM vehicles are equipped with OnStar hardware. Cost: Comes installed but plans start at $18.95.
One of OnStar's newest features is eNav, an enhancement of their Turn-By-Turn Navigation service. If your GM vehicle has OnStar and you're a subscriber, you can use your computer to find your destination, and then MapQuest sends the route directly to your vehicle. Simple voice commands let you access the route. See more at OnStar.com. Ease of Use = Easy |You'll Be Using It = Right Away
Ford introduced SYNC last year. Developed with Microsoft, SYNC has a powerful speech engine. This is the key to giving drivers voice control over their car's entertainment systems as well as linked external devices (via USB and wireless connections). With SYNC, when you talk to your car it will really hear you.
Cost: $395, rolled into the price of the vehicle. No monthly charge.
Once you've wirelessly linked to your Bluetooth phone and MP3 player (via USB), these devices can be voice controlled; it takes practice. Unlike GM's On-Star that uses built-into-the-car cellular hardware, SYNC provides services like emergency response and traffic routing using a paired cell phone. Learn more about SYNC at syncmyride.com.
Ease of Use = Easy | You'll Be Using It = Right Away
Acura is Honda's luxury brand. In typically humble Honda fashion, in the years since the first Acura debut in 1986, Honda has quietly expanded its line of high-quality premium automobiles. In addition to featuring one of the best audio systems (ELS Surround Sound), Acuras have optional features suited for traffic and weather junkies.
Cost: Technology package, approximately $3000.
If you're addicted to traffic and weather info but have tired of reports from local AM radio, then Acura's real-time traffic and weather are for you. In addition to trip routing, this NAV calculates real-time routes based on current traffic flow. Other screens show local weather radar and 3-day forecasts. Get more at Acura.com.
Ease of Use: Easy |You'll Be Using It: Right Away
New Lexus vehicles equipped with NAV feature casual-speech recognition. Systems like OnStar and SYNC require specific verbal commands, but Lexus eases things up. You can say, "Call Bob at home," or "Gimme a Japanese restaurant," instead of regimented verbal cues. More details at Lexus.com.
Cost: Technology package, approximately $6000 | Ease of Use: Easy | You'll Be Using It: Right Away
This spring, the old phone company takes their CruiseCast system live, offering 22 TV and 20 radio channels. A small satellite receiver on the vehicle's roof pipes entertainment to an A/V system. Never hear "Are we there yet?" again. Check out CruiseCast.com.
Cost: Hardware is $1300, fees are $28 per month | Ease of Use: Easy | You'll Be Using It: Right Away
If you're shopping for a new family hauler and want a simple-to-use, kid-quieting A/V system, consider the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan with the 2-screen option. It pipes 3 channels of kid's shows into twin overhead monitors. Kids listen over wireless headphones. See more at Chrysler.com.
Cost: $2000 | Ease of Use: Easy | You'll Be Using It: Right Away
If you already own a capable family hauler but want the latest in rear-seat entertainment, AudioVox offers several choices. Headrests matched to your interior include a monitor and DVD player, but the monitors link to 2-player video game action. Satellite TV is a new-for-2009 option. More at AudioVox.com.
Cost: Approximately $400 per headset | Ease of Use: Easy-ish | You'll Be Using It: 15 minutes
The Chrysler 200C easily ranked as one of the most significant concept cars at this past January's 2009 Detroit Auto Show. If the striking shape didn't stop you, news of its electric powertrain would. However, the most innovative feature of the show car was its gesture-based instrument panel. The technology provides a glimpse of our driving future.
Cost: Not for sale.
It's no surprise that the company behind the iPhone's gesture-based instrument cluster (Nartron) also works with Apple and other major electronics suppliers. The reconfigurable LCD display shows a glimpse of what the future of infotainment will look like. The button and switchless dashboard integrates multiple video monitors, GPS units, internet access and much more.
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