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Automakers Offer Whosits, Whatsits Galore


Unnecessary car gizmos through the ages.

The BBC reports, "Self-parking car hits the shops."

Well, we know what the benighted headline writer meant to say: Self-parking cars are now in showrooms - but it would be unfortunate if the new gizmo conked out and the car slammed through the front window, eh?

Automakers continually add new stuff that you don't need to boost profit margins. A car is just a bucket of bolts -- half a whisker above a commodity -- and the profit is made on add-ons, not fenders, axels, four-cylinder engines and other inessential stuff.

Toyota's (TM) Prius, a gas-electric hybrid, uses electronic sensors to guide it into parking spaces. "The sensors judge its position and so allow it to avoid obstacles like other parked cars and kerbs," the BBC reports from Japan. (The Brits, a hopelessly dyslexic bunch, also think "centre" is how you spell "center.") The U.S. price for the doohickey hasn't been set, but it costs 230,000 yen in Japan, or about $2,138.

Who needs it? How difficult is it to park a car, especially a compact like the Prius? Don't ask: Toyota wants you to know that you can't live without this convenience, so fork over the extra bucks. It's also a way for Toyota to distinguish itself from high-quality rivals Honda (HMC), Mazda and Subaru.

Maybe drivers felt the same way when automatic transmissions were introduced in 1938. After all, how difficult is it to tromp on the clutch and shift gears manually?

General Motors (GM) had a better idea: the "Hydra-Matic drive." The initial cost: $57. The first production models didn't show up until 1940 and widespread use was delayed until the end of World War II. By 1948, an automatic transmission was a standard option on most cars and came with names that now sound deliriously goofy - Vacamatic, Fluid Drive, and TorqueFlite.

You wouldn't think reading a map would be hard, even for the average English major. Let's see: North is at the top, if you're on the East Coast, the Atlantic Ocean's to the east; if you're on the West Coast, the Pacific Ocean's to the west. Simple! Impossible to get lost, unless you're in Kansas.

But a Global Positioning System, or GPS, is now a routine feature on many cars. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) offers the iPaq rx5900 Travel Companion for about $499. Ford (F) offers GPS devices in its Ford, Mercury and Lincoln cars as well as its trucks. GM even combines the GPS with cellular technology and calls it Onstar - a nifty device that allows you to call the cops and tell them exactly where the Martians are attacking.

There are also pocket-sized GPS devices, should you forget that in Manhattan the streets run east-west and the avenues run north-south.

Just about every upscale car offers automatic headlights that come on at dusk because 1) It's difficult to remember to turn on the headlights when you can't see and 2) Flicking the lights on manually creates gruesome wear-and-tear on your wrists and fingertips.

In a variation on the theme, GM introduced the "Autronic Eye" automatic headlight dimmer in 1952 as an option on the Cadillac and Oldsmobile; it was available the following year on Buick, Pontiac and Chevrolet models. The Autronic Eye was a (very attractive) periscope-like phototube on the left side of the dashboard, just inside the windshield. It wasn't an immediate success, because the headlights flickered in response to passing street lights. GM replaced it with the GuideMatic in 1958.

The first car radio, the Motorola (MOT) 5T71, was introduced around 1930 and sold for $110 to $130 - a hefty price at the time. But imagine: A radio in a car - it's like plugging your Apple (AAPL) computer right into Starbucks (SBUX)! Sony (SNE), Sanyo (SANYY) and Philips (PHG) are fine for Mozart, but if you want to blast the wax out of your ears and drown out the sirens on emergency vehicles, Rogue Acoustic Auto System offers whiz-bang stuff ranging from $72,000 to $300,000.

Yikes. Henry David Thoreau was onto something when he wailed: "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify."

Sound advice - but imagine how wretched life would be without Microsoft's (MSFT) spellchecker.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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