Whether it's finding the cheapest gas or grabbing a quick stock quote, the next generation of automotive navigation systems promises a lot more than maps and directions.
"It's another step on the inevitable process of having the Internet in cars," says Tom Mutchler, senior automotive engineer for Consumer Reports magazine.
Coming next year:
- Ford Motor will launch a navigation system in its new Lincoln MKS sedan next summer that will include not only real-time traffic data, but weather forecasts, sports scores and movie listings. Perhaps the most useful feature of the Travel Link system from Sirius Satellite Radio (SIRI) will be its ability to route drivers to the service station with the cheapest current gas price.
- XM Satellite Radio is unveiling a feature-packed system in 2009-model-year cars but won't reveal the automaker yet. Its Infotainment Package will include weather, scores and stock quotes but won't have the gas station function. XM and Sirius are seeking to merge.
Some advanced features are already showing up in aftermarket Global Positioning System devices.
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Garmin has started offering two models that can access a Microsoft service, MSN Direct, that includes weather, movie times and local fuel prices. The Nuvi model 680 lists for about $850, and the MSN service costs $49.95 a year, with one year free.
Features that go beyond navigation could sustain sales of GPS devices that have been red-hot for the holidays. "People are going to want and expect more content," says Garmin spokesman Jake Jacobson.
Ford isn't worried that new features in portable GPS units will cut into sales of its in-dash units. That's because factory-installed units will offer better integration, such as automatically turning down the volume of the stereo when delivering information by voice, says spokesman Mark Schirmer.
Unlike home computers, mobile varieties have to make sure they aren't giving motorists too much. "The challenge," says Mutchler, "is how do you control all this information without it being a major driver distraction?"
The key is to limit the information to what's needed at the moment, he says. For instance, Ford's system will receive pricing data from 120,000 gas stations but will sort by location. Fans can limit their sports score reports to their favorite teams.
Ford hopes to roll out the system on other models quickly. Pricing is yet to be determined. In the future, the system may be tweaked to let drivers know their refueling options as soon as it detects a car is running low. "It will automatically bring up the nearest and cheapest gas," says Larry Pesce, a Sirius senior vice president.