Automating the digital car

…Drivers can upgrade with the latest entertainment, navigation systems

When you wonder about the future of electronics in the car, look no further than the automobile industry’s own plans. Over the rest of this decade, manufacturers will begin to outfit their new models with 42 volt batteries, rather than 12. What are those 42 volts going to power? Well, just about anything you can imagine—and much of it is already on sale.

A lot of folks assume that the only way you’re going to get the latest and greatest in automotive gadgetry is to buy a new car that’s already fully equipped. While that may be true for some of the really state-of-the-art stuff — say, radar-powered collision avoidance — the fact is that lots of the other cool stuff can easily be added to your existing wheels.

Starting with audio, the biggest change lately is satellite radio: lots of great-sounding channels, from Howard Stern to the NFL, many sans advertising (although skeptics wonder how long that will last). The head-to-head competitors Sirius and XM have both made installation as easy as possible. Each company offers a variety of models that include roof-top antennas and built-in FM transmitters so that your existing car audio system can be used for listening; most of the receivers can also be removed for use at home. Sirius’ Starmate package, for example, is less than $100 and sometimes includes significant rebates. (Of course, for both services you still have to subscribe, currently at $12.95 a month.)

XM offers similar packages but also provides the XM Direct tuner that mounts out of sight and permanently connects to popular “satellite ready” car audio systems from companies like Sony, Pioneer and Alpine. XM Direct also works with some factory-installed radios from BMW, Mini and Chrysler. And Alpine is the first company to offer an in-dash CD player that has a built-in XM receiver: Just add an antenna to the CDA-9820XM, subscribe and your 150 channels are on the way.

While you’re upgrading your audio, you may also get pitched on installing a surround sound system in your car — DVDs, after all, are encoded with surround sound as are the multi-channel SACD or DVD-A audio formats. But this is one audio retrofit that’s a bit tricky to do neatly, since the crucial center-channel speaker needs to be, well, right in the middle of your dashboard. For this technology you may just want to wait until your next new car — it’s hard to compete with factory-installed units like the 14 speaker, 11 channel, 330-watt Mark Levinson surround sound system for Lexus.

The fact is, however, for car electronics buffs, audio has lately taken a backseat to car video. (Although it’s usually car video that actually ends up in the backseat.) For starters, you can buy a number of in-dash DVD players that neatly replace your existing radio or cassette/CD player. Where’s the screen? A motorized LCD cleverly slides out of the dashboard and pivots up for video viewing—except when you’re driving, thanks to a mercifully sensible safety interlock. A mid-priced example of the genre is the Jensen VM9410, which offers a 7-inch 16:9 screen plus the ability to play every kind of DVD and CD format imaginable. An interesting option: You can connect a rear-view camera (RV dealers sell units that mount on or under your rear bumper), so shifting into reverse automatically puts the rearward view on screen.