DETROIT - What types of vehicle options and features will consumers demand in the coming years?
That's hard to say for sure, but the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress and Exhibition offers a glimpse of what's ahead.
About 50,000 engineers and other industry folk attended the annual event in Detroit last month. The show's 1,200 displays cover just about every system that goes - or may soon go - into vehicles.
For instance, Lear Corp. demonstrated a completely flexible interior that would allow customers to choose what seats, dashboard treatment, instrumentation, steering wheel and other features they want.
TRW Inc. touted experimental car doors that unlock two ways: when an on-board camera recognizes the face of an authorized driver or when an electronic pad registers the fingerprint of such a person.
Delphi Delco Electronics Systems demonstrated the future use of X-by-wire systems. Those can control steering, throttle, braking and suspension. They also eliminate mechanical links from driver's controls to control acuators.
The SAE extravaganza, Detroit's biggest convention, was also big on safety systems, too.
Those include brakes with faster response time, air bags with more refinements, and collision avoidance systems with radar and vision sensors that signal impending danger.
A Dohring Co. Inc. survey indicates more customers want vehicle safety features.
For example, 76% of people surveyed ranked air bags as important and very important (up 13% from a similar survey two years ago), 85% gave the same important ranking to ABS brakes (up 7% from two years ago), and 81% highly ranked traction control (up 4% from 1998).
"Customers' demands for safety features continue to grow," says Dohring Senior Vice President Rik Kinney. "It's a call to manufacturers that safety sells."
SAE displays also featured state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment for dealership service technicians.
That included GenRad's CD-ROM-driven Worldwide Diag-nostic System. It's described as a next-generation diagnostic tool for vehicle diagnostic demands of the 21st century.
Some convention participants say that as cars become more complex, service technicians will become highly specialized in various areas of expertise, much like doctors are.
Making sure they know how to use that equipment properly is essential, says Frank Ligon, technical support operations manager for Ford Customer Service Division.
"Quality training is key to our quest in attaining customer satisfaction," he says.