Living Room, To Go

So you've had a stressful day at work and now you're bracing for the white-knuckle ride home. You slump in your car, clench the steering wheel and, through gritted teeth, say: "Calm me." Your car feels your strain, recognizes your fingerprint on the wheel and responds. Mood lighting fills the cockpit with a warm fireside glow. Your seat adjusts to a relaxing position and begins gently massaging and warming your aching back. Soothing jazz flows from the digital surround stereo. Your satellite navigation system checks for traffic snarls. And for the final touch, vanilla candle scent wafts from the vents. As you exit the parking garage, you leave the rat race behind and are transported back to the womb.

This is no George Jetson commute. All these gizmos are now in the works inside carmakers' research labs. And some--like massaging seats and fingerprint recognition--are already on the road. With weary commuters spending an average of 82 minutes a day in traffic, twice as much as two decades ago, carmakers are racing to redecorate with all the comforts of home on the road. Cup holders and a cassette player just don't cut it anymore.

Now DVD players, theater-style sound, videogame cubes, MP3 outlets and body-hugging seats are turning cars into rolling living rooms. Or make that a great room that includes a kitchen. Carmakers have started outfitting models with tiny refrigerators and within a few years they'll be installing microwaves, trash compactors and even coffee makers. Down the road, cars will cater to our every whim, whether it's finding a sushi bar or reading our e-mail--and transmitting our dictated response. Like Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, we will eventually utter commands into thin air and our car will make it so. In the past, most depictions of the "car of the future" focused on sci-fi exterior designs. (Shouldn't we be rocketing around in flying cars by now?) But automotive experts now predict the real advances in the quality of our driving lives will come from overhauling cars' interiors. "Because our lives are so stressful and so busy," says automotive futurist Wes Brown of Nextrend, "we're looking for our cars to be a sanctuary."

Some drivers don't have to wait around for the car of the future--they can get a taste of it now if they can afford it. The seats of the new $48,000 Mercedes E-class, for example, are not only heated and air-conditioned, but they also snuggle up to you in tight turns (the outside edges of the E-class driver's seat actually pump up with air to keep you from sliding around). When you shift the $60,000 Infiniti Q45 into reverse, its nav system converts to a closed-circuit TV to give you a view from the rear license plate. And the $67,000 Audi A8 coming next summer offers an option James Bond would love: fingerprint recognition. Just touch the start button and it automatically adjusts the seat, stereo and climate control to your liking. The start button also fires up the A8 as long as the key is somewhere inside the cockpit, thanks to a radio signal that communicates with a chip in the key. Some futurists believe fingerprint recognition will eventually replace keys. But Audi product manager Filit Brabec says that's a "dangerous proposition." We'll spare you the gory details, but let's just say a carjacker might have a keen interest in taking your finger with him.

Some of these high-tech gadgets are starting to drift down to everyday family haulers. By mid-decade, auto supplier Johnson Controls predicts minivans and SUVs will be equipped with "kid cams" that monitor the back seat and display Junior on a small video screen above the rearview mirror. The $30,000 Chrysler Pacifica sports wagon arriving next year will offer Bluetooth technology now found on BMWs that senses a mobile phone is in the car and pipes calls through the stereo for hands-free communication. Eventually, Bluetooth will read your e-mail from your Palm PDA and zap a response, using voice-recognition software, through your wireless phone. The Pacifica also features a nifty nav screen that seems to float holographically above the speedometer. (Like any good trick, it's all done with mirrors.) There's a safety bonus to this cool look: better to glance down at a speedometer than peer to the side at a screen. As more cars beam signals to global positioning satellites, nav systems will eventually provide real-time traffic updates for each driver.

Drivers might get jazzed about a cool nav system, but their passengers couldn't care less. What they're excited about are the latest breakthroughs in mobile theater. When GM and Chrysler began outfitting minivans with VCRs a few years ago, parents finally found the answer to "Are we there yet?" Now DVD screens are popping out everywhere, from the ceiling, the center armrest, seatbacks. Coming soon are multiple DVD screens that allow one kid to battle Lara Croft while the other watches "Spider-Man." Each kid is outfitted with wireless headphones so mom and dad can listen to their own music. Auto engineers are also working on beaming satellite TV onto those DVD screens. They've already come out with satellite radio, with 100 channels of music and nearly 100 more with news, sports and talk. Eventually, you might pull your car up to an entertainment filling station at a gas station or convenience store and beam music videos, games and movies onto your DVD (for a small fee, of course). That way you don't have to haul around a huge library of discs to keep the kids happy. "It's going to be like having a play box with all the toys," says Tim Yerdon, an engineer at auto supplier Visteon.

Two caution lights are blinking on the race to engineer this rolling funhouse: car sickness and driver distraction. DVD screens placed too high force kids to crane their necks, which throws off their balance and can upset their tummies. Worse yet, video goggles being tested by some automakers can sicken even cast-iron stomachs because they obscure the outside world while your inner ear still feels motion. "You have to be careful about the puke factor," says Patrick Murray of auto supplier Lear Inc. Losing your lunch is nothing compared to the lethal damage distracted drivers can do. And with all these new gadgets, there's plenty to take a driver's eyes and mind off the road. That's why automakers are researching how much "cognitive load" motorists can handle.

It's going to take a strong stomach and nerves of steel to get used to driving in the future. Mercedes engineers are driving a prototype in Germany that has no steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedals. The driver controls the car with joysticks mounted on each side of his seat. Manipulating a joystick is a natural for the under-35 crowd weaned on Nintendo, Mercedes has found. And it's safer in a crash since there's no steering wheel to crush your sternum or pedals to break your ankles. Further down the road, Mercedes is researching an autopilot system that uses long-range cameras to see what's ahead and steer, accelerate and brake automatically. In a couple of years, Mercedes and others are expected to mount tiny cameras on the sides of cars to eliminate blind spots. A peripheral view will be displayed on the nav screen. And if you drift out of your lane, sensors will set off alarms and vibrate your seat and steering wheel.

A laid-back alternative to that jarring scenario is parked in the airy atrium of Johnson Controls' suburban Detroit tech center. The chunky doors of the futuristic Ariston concept car open like a clamshell on its side to reveal mint leather seats that appear to float above the floor. When you slide into the driver's seat, there's no steering wheel or speedometer. But with a gentle tug on a ring near your knees, a steering wheel slowly emerges from beneath the dash and a Lucite screen flips up to reveal golden luminescent gauges. Turn up the heat by touching fabric buttons on the door and suddenly the interior is bathed in warm rose-colored glow. Or dial up the AC and the light modulates to ice blue. Ariston's atmosphere is supposed to evoke a quiet dinner at a fine restaurant. "The interior can create some new rituals for drivers," explains Johnson Controls designer Bill Fluharty. "It can be a calming environment." Now that we've put you inside the car of the future, there's just one question: are we calm yet?