Turn Your Car into a Multi-Media Machine

Without doubt, your newest vehicle has airbags and perhaps even climate control and a satellite-capable radio like Sirius. But does your car, truck, SUV or family mini-van come equipped with the finest in home theater-quality multimedia hardware? Perhaps you are missing something. If you have no digital video record (DVR), satellite TV hookup, global positioning system (GPS), or Internet access in your car, you may think you’re missing a lot. But are you?

Go to any big regional auto show – and even your own local car dealer showroom – today, and you can come away with the sense that you can forget those huge monthly house mortgage payments because automobiles are getting comfortable enough to live in. But it’s not the ergonomically designed seating or the expanded foot room. Instead, it’s all the bells and whistles auto manufacturers now add as fancy options that bring the home theater experience to your weekend drive to grandma’s house or the long road trip to Disney World.

I just took an online tour for a new U.S. manufacturer’s model due out next fall that boasts audio-video and communications equipment I don’t even have in my home! This spiffy SUV features both front and backseat screens to view either satellite TV – and the reception disk is built into the hood – or DVDs you can play on a DVD unit built into the back of the front seat. This is in addition to a dashboard stereo system that claims to be the best audio experience on four wheels and includes satellite radio and an optional multi-CD changer.

A flip-out tray in the second seat allows a passenger to set up and hook up a laptop to either satellite or wireless Internet access. There was even an optional universal serial bus (USB) hub to allow people to quickly connect a Webcam or other external hardware to use along the trip. Another option is supposed to let you turn your laptop display into what you see on either the front or rear video screens on the car itself. Think of it: your entire carpool can see your latest PowerPoint presentation!

Of course, there is GPS built-in; a woman’s voice prompts you to find the nearest Wal-Mart, 7-11, or Long John Silver’s, perhaps once you get the munchies from hearing fast food ads on the radio or satellite TV.

But as I perused the online tour, and mentally calculated how much all these extras cost, I could not help but wonder why I would want to turn my little SUV into a media chamber. The advertised SUV, which is standard fuel-powered rather than a hybrid, is one of those big honkers that gets less than half the miles per gallon than a normal-sized car allows. Or perhaps all the audio-video equipment is to distract you from the fact that it costs you the price of a decent jacket to fill up the gas tank.

Also, try to imagine the battery on this vehicle. You’re going to need two people to lift that battery out when it’s time to replace it. Leave the DVD player running too long on accessory power, and you’re going to need a powerful jump start before you see what happens in the second half of the movie.

Considering how all these safety studies show us that using cell phones are distracting, why are we seeing so many unnecessary goodies appear in car models as a big incentive to buy? Yes, screaming children bored from a 15-minute car trip can be pretty distracting as well, I grant you. But is it going to be any better if the teenager in the front seat is listening to Howard Stern on Sirius radio while the pre-teen twins are in the back whooping it up at the latest Adam Sandler movie while your spouse plays Internet Texas Hold ‘Em as you try to negotiate a difficult pass on a six-lane superhighway?

My friend, Teresa, was one of the first people I know to buy a mini-van with a DVD and TV screen. She was certain it was the answer to her prayers because her three boys could get very unruly even on short car trips. In the beginning, she said it did seem to help. Yet, within a few months, she was seriously questioning her decision.

First, the boys began to argue far more loudly about which movie to watch than they ever had about how long it was taking to arrive at their destinations. She soon decided that rather than sugar-coat their impatience, adding a home theater setup to the mini-van had just made her crew less able to tolerate trips unless a movie playing. The kids, she said, would go nuts if it took a moment extra for the movie to queue up. That, she adds, should have signaled to her that she had made a mistake. Second, the DVD unit that came with the vehicle only had one headphone jack. With three boys, in order for them all to hear the audio, they had to run it without headphones.

“If you think they like their stereo really loud in the house, you haven’t seen what it’s like when you have a booming sound track and crashes and zaps while you’re fighting rush hour traffic or icy mountain roads,” Teresa says with a shudder. “Unless the whole van shook with the sound, the boys thought it was too soft.”

Her sons also weren’t gentle with the equipment. A soccer ball got bounced off the small video screen during one such fight, and Teresa paid an astounding $800-plus to replace it. Then, after a fender bender, the DVD player stopped working properly. Although Teresa could see DVD players in stores for as little as $40, the dealer told her it would cost more than $400 to replace hers. Her insurance company, however, balked at paying for the replacement because they had already paid a claim on the body damage sustained.

When her eldest son busted the video screen a second time, Teresa decided enough was enough. First, she told her sons that if they wanted to watch videos in the car, they were going to need to save up enough cash to pay for the second screen replacement. While the boys expected she would eventually buy the replacement for them, Teresa resolved not to do this. She wanted them to understand the price and with it, appreciate that their carelessness cost them a creature comfort.

But Teresa also let them know that, if the boys did get enough to replace the video screen and restore their in-auto DVD viewing, they would still need to agree to certain rules: the volume had to be more reasonably set and the movie playing could not interfere with the whole reason they were in the car in the first place. Teresa says she was often left standing outside the van, cooling her heels while she waited for a movie to finish, before the family could go into a store or restaurant.

“You have to set limits or your car becomes as chaotic as your family room after the kids have overdosed on sugary soda and ice cream. And the car really isn’t the place for that kind of raucousness,” says Teresa.

Last year, when it was time to trade in the mini-van, Teresa made a decision that was most unpopular with her sons. While the family looked at a number of models that actually had far nicer in-car home theater and multimedia access, Teresa declined all the special entertainment options in favor of one with better gas mileage and a hybrid fuel system.

“Here’s the kicker,” she adds. “Hybrids are still more expensive than standard fuel cars. But once I added up all the costs associated with the kind of media extras the boys wanted, these options came to just slightly more than the difference between a hybrid and a standard car. Plus I get a tax break and an energy rebate for buying the hybrid and the relative peace and quiet of not having to listen to a movie booming in my ears!”

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