Cars to be major Net service vehicles down the road

Cars in the future will deliver Internet-based services and entertainment to users, a Mercedes-Benz USA LLC executive said last month at the Comdex 2000 trade show in Las Vegas, in the first-ever keynote address at the show given by an automotive executive.

Mercedes models to come will provide dynamic maps using information from other cars that have traveled a route, download movies from video stores via short-range wireless networks, and pass on information from connected home appliances, such as an empty refrigerator, said Ken Enders, vice-president of marketing for Mercedes Benz USA, a subsidiary of Daimler Benz AG.

With the average American commuter in a vehicle for 90 minutes each day – and up to five hours in New York or the San Francisco Bay Area – autos will become a common place to seek information from the Internet, he added.

Trade show attendees should get used to seeing auto makers at computer events – Mercedes-Benz is the official automotive sponsor of this year’s Comdex – as the two industries begin to cooperate more.

When it comes to reliability in hostile environments, Enders said, the automotive system is ahead of the IT industry: embedded computers in cars continue to operate in baking-hot temperatures or while sprayed with water. “Your PC can’t do that,” he said.

“The power of combining the marketing expertise and the technological innovation of both our industries could be exponential,” Enders said. “Don’t be surprised to see more of the likes of me at future computer trade shows,” he added.

Mercedes and some other automakers already are using GPS (global positioning system) information and cellular connectivity to provide emergency services and directions to drivers, and the range of services soon will expand, Enders said. Internet connectivity will help expand the offerings to include data such as dining recommendations, entertainment programs and even maps that keep up with construction obstacles and other changes on a driver’s commute route, he added.

“Cars have become the next big untapped platform for mobile e-services,” Enders said.

The key to making auto Internet services useful will be to deliver information filtered according to a driver’s location and, most importantly, preferences, he explained.

“Marketing a swanky new Asian restaurant to a driver based on their proximity is a no-brainer today. But (in the future), we will be able to do it only to drivers who like Asian food,” he said.

Enders’ predictions were largely well received by the audience.

Lars Sveijer, an engineer with L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co.’s mobile phone division in Sweden who watched Enders’ presentation, said he was not surprised to see an automotive industry executive speaking at Comdex.

Sveijer said the PC industry had nothing to learn technically from the automotive industry. “It’s more the other way around,” he said. However, IT manufacturers would do well to draw on the automotive industry’s experience of branding and lifestyle marketing, he added.

Adam Zylstra, a self-confessed “techie type” from Orange County, Calif., comes to Comdex “every year.” He found Enders’ ideas “maybe a little far-fetched,” but thought that a more water- and heat-resistant PC would be useful. “The PC industry could definitely protect computer equipment, make it waterproof so if you have a fire, the sprinkler going off doesn’t kill all the systems,” Zylstra said.

Fred Rarick, a physician from Rolling Hills Estates, Calif., is not a Mercedes-Benz customer, but is already enjoying the benefits of Cadillac’s on-road assistance service. He is skeptical of the usefulness of having advertising messages beamed into his car, even while stationery. “I’m not sure I need it very much,” he said. “It’s not too exciting to me.” Rarick is also unwilling to allow a car manufacturer to collect information about his shopping and other preferences.

He was more inclined to permit a virtual “hive” of communicating car computers to track his movements in order to build up a detailed picture of road conditions.

It seems that every new technology wave in the IT industry must find its “killer app” — but Rarick already knows what he expects of automotive computing. “Now if Mercedes could solve the parking problem, they would really have something.”