CD players in automobiles could go the way of eight-track tapes with in-dash systems like one Ford Motor and Microsoft are jointly producing to link cars with cell phones and personal music players.
The "Sync" system being unveiled Sunday at the North American International Auto Show connects popular iPods and all other digital music players -- including Microsoft's nascent Zune -- to in-dash software through a USB port. Drivers will be able to pick songs, artists or genres using voice activation or controls on the steering wheel.
The system also links Bluetooth-capable smart phones and personal digital assistants to the car's electronics, allowing the car system to pick up Internet broadcasts. An electronic voice even will read inbound text messages through the sound system, complete with a vocabulary of slang abbreviations such as "LOL" for "laughing for loud."
Sync ratchets up the car electronics war as the struggling Ford tries to compete with General Motors' OnStar system, DaimlerChrysler's MyGIG in-dash hard drive storage system and similar devices offered by other manufacturers.
It gives Ford leadership, at least for now, in what is becoming an increasingly competitive race in cabin electronics, said Kevin Reale, an AMR Research automotive analyst who has been briefed by Microsoft on the Sync system.
"It's going to give them some competitive differentiation in being able to provide capabilities of personal electronics in the vehicle," said Reale, who predicted that other manufacturers will catch up quickly with other electronics suppliers.
Just last week, Hughes Telematics and DaimlerChrysler teamed up to develop a new system.
The whole race places the venerable CD in danger of extinction. Sync can even take music off a small USB thumb drive, ending the need to fumble with and store multiple CDs.
In fact, Ford already is discussing whether it needs to offer CD players in future models, said Gary Jablonski, the company's manager of infotainment systems.
"Certainly we know there are customers who have migrated their entire personal music collection to a digital realm, in which case, Sync and the USB connection will probably be the only thing in the vehicle that they use," Jablonski said. "Is there a day when the CD player disappears from the vehicle? It seems likely."
Ford plans to put the system in 12 of its vehicles starting with 2008 models. Company officials say it's likely to be an option that costs less than $1,000.
The motor company said it has an exclusive contract with Microsoft for one year, after which the system can be sold to other automakers.
The system is designed so it is linked to all car electronics and promises to be flexible enough to handle devices yet to be invented. Sync someday could include laptop computer links, vehicle diagnostics and even voice reading of Web sites, Jablonski said.
"Phones last with a customer about 18 months. Our cars last a lot longer than 18 months," he said. "We want to make sure that the car stays relevant, compatible with what the customer is using."
The system grew out of discussions among Ford engineers who saw the company, like many manufacturers, caught off guard by the iPod phenomenon. Some of its current models don't even have a jack to plug such devices into the sound system.
But Ford vows not to be caught off guard again.
"You'll see a significant shift in the kinds of technologies that Ford's offering and the speed at which they're coming to market," Jablonski said.