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While the Toyota (NYSE: TM ) unintended-accleration kerfuffle once again dominated the week's auto headlines, key developments around the world continued to give us glimpses of the automobile's future. Here are a few of those developments.
The in-car tech revolution continues
Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) efforts to devour all information everywhere have now brought it to your car's dashboard. Its announcement Wednesday of expanded ties with Ford (NYSE: F ) and General Motors is just the latest step in Big G's push into the auto industry.
The agreements, resembling deals Google has with Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Garmin (Nasdaq: GRMN ) , and others, lets drivers of cars equipped with Ford's SYNC or GM's OnStar systems send a destination directly from Google Maps to their cars' navigation systems.
This isn't exactly revolutionary technology -- Google started this program about three years ago, and Ford (among others) already has similar deals in place with MapQuest -- but it is one more sign that advanced in-car "infotainment" has gone from being a luxury-car specialty to, increasingly, a key differentiator in the automotive mass market.
I'm wondering if and when Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) will attempt to bring its Bing service into this space. Microsoft isn't exactly a stranger to Motown -- its technology is key to Ford's SYNC system -- but so far, as in so many other spaces, Bing hasn't been a factor here.
Honda bets on hybrids
Many auto watchers, including yours truly, have long waited for Honda (NYSE: HMC ) to marshal a coherent, aggressive green-technology strategy. The company was an early advocate of hybrid technology, but it's long since fallen behind archrival Toyota in the race to a cleaner automotive future, leaving us wondering whether the company had lost its legendary focus.
Renewed signs of life emerged this week, however, as The Nikkei reported that Honda would resume construction of a major manufacturing plant set to build a new generation of hybrid Hondas. The factory in Yorii, northwest of Tokyo, will focus on new technology intended for the manufacturer's larger vehicles, according to the report.
Honda, after much dithering with "clean" diesel and other technologies, finally seems to be following other major automakers in placing most of its green focus on hybrid and electric powertrains. Is this a sign that Honda is -- finally -- getting back to the focus on innovation that built its global reputation? It's a welcome first step, but we'll have to wait and see.
Toyota and Tesla get down to business
In last week's "Autos Weekly," I noted that Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda had just revealed that the company was working on an electric-vehicle prototype powered by a Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) battery pack.
That story has been fleshed out considerably since, and it now appears that the companies have already developed a prototype of a Tesla-powered version of Toyota's popular RAV4 SUV. Tesla has agreed to produce a fleet of electrified RAV4 prototypes by the end of this year, the two companies announced on Friday, with an aim to have a production version of the vehicle on sale in the U.S. in 2012.
For those (including yours truly) who have pooh-poohed Tesla's chances of success, this development is worth watching closely. That fleet of prototypes will in all likelihood be subjected to Toyota's extensive real-world testing program, a harsh challenge compared with the kid-glove treatment that most of Tesla's Roadsters have received in the real world. If the Tesla powertrains' range and durability outperform Toyota's existing technologies, the Silicon Valley upstart could end up with a lucrative long-term opportunity. Keep an eye on this one.
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