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If your car is your refuge from the wired world, look out-a new field called telematics could soon put e-mail, news and MP3s in the driver’s seat with you.

It’s nearly noon in General Motors’ OnStar service center in Troy, MI.

Perhaps 50 people are in their cubicles, peering at computer screens-and while the place isn’t exactly jumping, it hums. A woman on the road in Greenville, TX, wants directions to the Mary Kay center in Dallas. Thanks to the car’s Global Positioning System receiver and wireless connectivity, the OnStar advisor can see a map showing the vehicle’s exact location. She tells the driver Mary Kay is 102 kilometers away, and guides her to the nearest freeway on-ramp. At another terminal things are more urgent: “Mr. [Jones], this is the OnStar center. Your emergency button has been pressed. Are you all right? Mr. Jones, are you all right?” (He is; it turns out the button was hit in error.)

It used to be people got in their cars and were out of touch for however long it took them to get to their destinations. Cell phones changed that-with exceptions depending on coverage zones and interference. More recently, OnStar and similar plans such as Mercedes-Benz’s Tele Aid and BMW Assist have provided built-in wireless links between cars and call centers where operators give directions or summon emergency assistance; some systems unlock doors remotely for locked-out drivers and even provide “concierge” services such as locating the nearest ATM or Chinese restaurant.

But automakers are hoping that what’s available so far is just an appetizer. Faced with dwindling margins and keen to build customer loyalty in the face of intense competition, carmakers are pouring millions into Internet-based systems that would enable drivers to get e-mail, automated directions, tailored news, stock quotes, sports scores, music-even games for the kids in the back seat. At the movement’s heart is a blossoming field called telematics-wireless voice and data communication between a car and somewhere else. Already a $5.3 billion business, telematics could reach $30 billion by 2010, according to Michael Heidingsfelder, partner and senior vice president of Roland Berger Strategy Consultants in Troy, which tracks the auto industry. Calling telematics “the next revolution” in auto electronics, Heidingsfelder says it “will change the landscape of the auto industry in terms of technology content, vehicle design and profit streams.”

Although the vision of car as Internet portal is striking, it’s far from clear how much data people actually want in their cars-or how much they’ll pay for it. Telematics developers still debate the interface-voice or screen or some combination thereof-and whether the proposed flood of offerings will make driving more dangerous. As with any new communications technology, wars over which “standard,” or format, will dominate remain to be fought. But while such constraints will slow the vision’s realization, one thing is certain: the car will never be the same.

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