In this world of always-on social media, are our autos evolving into giant smartphones?
Zee Rodriguez is too young to remember the popular 1980s TV series "Knight Rider," but she can relate to one of that series' stars: K.I.T.T., a talking car that could accept voice commands from its driver.
Rodriguez' new car, a 2011 Mazda3 in gunmetal blue mica, has Bluetooth hands-free capability that allows her to use voice commands or controls mounted on the steering wheel, effectively "talking" with her car. Rodriguez, 25, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., traded in a 2008 Chevy Equinox Sport for the Mazda3. She was worried about missing the OnStar system she had grown to love. "But the Bluetooth system in my new car is my new favorite tech feature, for both calls and music," she said.
Rodriguez is as tech-savvy as much of her generation. She owns a Droid Incredible smartphone, a Toshiba laptop and recently purchased a digital heart monitor for her workouts. She appreciates the technology link her car offers as well. "I can send and receive calls through the Bluetooth option, and play my MP3 files or Slacker Radio via my phone," she says.
Her car is one of dozens of makes and models that allow drivers to stay connected, even while driving.
"Integrating smartphones in vehicles gives drivers a seamless connected lifestyle experience," said Thilo Koslowski, a manufacturing analyst for Gartner, an information technology research firm. Koslowski was responding to a ground breaking Car Connectivity Consortium launched in March by 11 companies including automakers and consumer electronics manufacturers.
For drivers such as Rodriguez, a connected car is just another extension of a connected life. But how about older drivers, those who might be drawn to the novelty of a "Knight Rider" type experience but not consider it an essential function of a car?
"The connected car provides valuable data access for all consumer demographics," Koslowski said. "Older driver segments value safety and security functions more than younger drivers. But all age-groups value infotainment-related web content such as streaming Internet radio or the latest map data information for their navigation system.
"I foresee that the automobile will become the ultimate mobile device platform in the future that-- in addition to transportation -- will address drivers' information and communication needs across all age groups."
Alan Hall, a spokesperson for Ford Motor Co., says the automaker offers several options and systems that allow customers to choose what is right for them. "Our technology features are designed to be intuitive and easy to use by all customers, not just those that are technology enthusiasts," Hall said.
The concept of cars as giant smartphones has overtaken the entire industry.
Founding members of the connectivity consortium include Daimler (parent company of Mercedes-Benz), General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and Volkswagen; system suppliers Alpine and Panasonic; and consumer electronics makers LG Electronics, Nokia and Samsung.
And nearly all auto manufacturers are offering their own versions of connectivity. Those involved in the consortium are working on something they call a "Terminal Point" standard that connects between smartphones and in-car computer systems.
Here's a quick review of what's now being offered in the way of in-car connectivity:
• General Motors offers the MyLink that uses Bluetooth technology and integrates online services such as Pandora Internet radio and Stitcher SmartRadio; adds flash memory to USB device connections; and features the safety and technology features of the OnStar communications system.
• Toyota's connectivity service is called Entune, which features a mobile app that allows the driver to navigate options with a touch screen or voice commands; it interfaces via a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone with Pandora, the Bing search engine, OpenTable restaurant information and MovieTickets.com, among other Internet services.
• MINI offers MINI Connected, with downloadable apps for traffic and parking information, roadside assistance; Bluetooth connectivity, real-time traffic and navigation information; and a scoring system that allows drivers to track mileage and CO2 emissions.
• Ford's SYNC system includes hands-free calling, turn-by-turn directions and traffic alerts, a music search, personalized daily information, and audible text messages; the latest version adds smartphone connectivity and Pandora Radio and Twitter message streaming.
• BMW's ConnectedDrive includes services such as roadside assistance, traffic and parking information, a theft-prevention option, and a maintenance notifier.
Industry analysts predict advances toward multi-media experiences and connectivity in cars isn't a passing trend. In-Stat, a market research firm, says that the electronics industry is responding to the demand for multi-media experiences in cars and forecasts that more than 35 million in-vehicle infotainment systems are expected to be shipped in 2015.
Can consumers keep up with the demands on their tech skills?
New Mazda owner Zee Rodriguez says yes -- with a little help. "I think it would have been difficult to figure out on my own, but the salesman didn't let me leave until I learned how to use these features," she said. "He actually set it all up for me and all I have to do is get into my car and it automatically links."