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Smart phones, touch screens and colourful interfaces. They are becoming standard fare in cars and light trucks in 2011. And auto makers who don't lead the pack in terms of integrating and simplifying technology in vehicles, will fall behind the competition.

"Technology is going to be the trump card - absolutely, without question ... making the active interface the reason people buy a car in the future," says Ralph Gilles, CEO of the Dodge brand and Chrysler Group's design chief. The challenge is to adapt to evolving technologies with design interfaces that are both pleasing to the eye and user-friendly.

This explains why inside the 2011 Ford Fiesta you will see dashboard controls modelled after the keypad of a cellphone. When that dash was invented nearly three years ago, Ford's market research suggested that young buyers were more attached to their mobile phones than to their means of mobility.

Unfortunately, by the time the Fiesta arrived in Canadian showrooms last summer, the phone on which Ford modelled its dashboard controls had already begun to look a bit old-fashioned alongside the latest Apple iPhones and Motorola Droids. Mobile electronics evolve quickly and that's a challenge for car companies anxious to keep up.

Ford knows this, says global product chief Derrick Kuzak.

"I have a daughter in her 20s and a mother in her 80s. We need to design our technology for both of them, and me in between," says the 50-something Kuzak.

To help keep vehicles controls and instruments up to date in a rapidly changing environment, Ford has established a set of design principles for automotive interfaces. They are being consistently applied to all models to improve what it calls the "cabin experience." Ford's program dates back to 2006 and was given the internal code name HAL.

These guidelines, in fact, represent a sort of universal logic for all the cars' switches and systems. They helped designers shape the dashboard controls in the redesigned Ford Edge and Explorer. And they will apply to future Ford models around the world.

Ford, obviously, isn't the only car maker to come to this conclusion. After all, your iPhone and some BlackBerrys operate by the touch of your fingers. Why not your car? Auto makers around the world are rolling out a new generation of dashboard technology that substitutes touch-sensitive pads and displays for dated knobs and switches and buttons.

A long list of new models has traded videogame-style graphics for dated and drab two-dimensional displays. The technology created to power games, mobile phones and computer displays is now finding its way into hand-held devices with four tires and leather seats - your car.

Take the 2011 Audi A8. It's dashboard has a navigation system option that displays 3D images and downloads map data from the World Wide Web. The soon-to-market new Audi A6 sedan will have an optional touch pad that allows the driver to send commands to the car's navigation and Bluetooth telecommunications systems by tracing letters with a fingertip.

Thus, if I want to call my boss to tell him I will be test-driving a $60,000 A6 instead of coming to his 10 a.m. meeting, I can trace S-I-M-O-N and so on until the system recognizes his name and offers to connect the call through my Bluetooth-enabled phone. The car has a voice system that reads back the letters as you trace them.

The A6 I recently tested in Italy had a navigation system connected to the Internet, enabling a display screen to pull three-dimensional images of buildings and terrain from Google Earth and display them on the screen. Using a voice command or tracing with my finger on the touch pad, I had the option of asking the system to find Palermo, in Sicily. In my case, my voice commands led to a display showing not just a flat map diagram but a 3D satellite image of the surroundings.

The long and short of it is that today's automobiles are transforming from purely mechanical devices into increasingly digital appliances, connected to cyberspace and orbiting satellites. Ford's new MyFord Touch interior touchscreen and LCD dashboard display is a perfect example of this trend.

Challenges remain, however, and they are not ones easily overcome. For instance, even the most highly skilled drivers find it challenging to safely manage the flow of information and entertainment while navigating a luxury sedan at 100 km/hour.

Consumer Reports magazine has panned the voice-activated touch-screen technology known as MyFord Touch on the 2011 Edge crossover and MyLincoln Touch on the Lincoln MKX crossover. The magazine said the system is a distraction and often fails to work properly. It refused to recommend the new crossovers largely because of the MyFord Touch technology.

Among other things, this has forced Ford Motor to re-think the way it delivers new vehicles to customers. The typically quick walk-around and hand-over of the keys at the dealership is being replaced by more thorough walkarounds and explanations of how the on-board technology works.

"These technologies - whether it's electrification, MyFord Touch or Sync - people learn them over time," says Jim Farley, Ford's group vice-president of global marketing, sales and service. "They struggle with them, they learn them and it's the second or third delivery that needs to happen to really get the most use of the system."

Audi engineers say about half the work done in their driving simulators is now aimed at driver-distraction issues and how to eliminate them. There is no way around this. Today's consumer views graphics-rich displays and ever more sophisticated infotainment as must-haves, particularly in the upper end of the luxury-car market.

Yes, technology is the trump card, and, depending on how car makers play it, the results can be good or bad.

The most significant cars your should see this year - from the cheapest to the most fuel efficient. And let's admit it: looks count

jcato@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

 

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