Scenic drives on the infobahn 

It’s not exactly a revelation to say that the Internet has changed the way we do just about everything. And yet the rate at which that change continues to take place truly is remarkable. In the automotive world, Web sites now offer everything from direct auto sales to satellite downloads to all manner of content designed to inform, educate, or entertain car enthusiasts and Sunday drivers alike. Here’s a sampling of recent discoveries on the World Wide Web—some useful, some downright distracting.

Greenlight.com

http://www.greenlight.com.

The debut of Greenlight.com late last year serves as a fitting symbol of the huge but so far quiet revolution in the way customers can buy their cars. Greenlight is a plain and straightforward site to visit, but its premise is powerful: Buy direct. As family-owned auto dealerships around the nation scamper to protect their almost feudal rights to exclusive sales territories, the Internet has arrived like a many-headed dragon to battle the dealers for your business.

Along with other direct-sales sites like CarsDirect.com, Auto-by-Tel, and Cars.com, Greenlight offers the option—but not the requirement—to buy new and used cars without a traditional dealer acting as middleman. A complex web of state laws means direct sales aren’t available to everyone, and not everyone wants to do away with dealer involvement anyway. But as Greenlight and other direct-sales entities evolve, you can bet the owners of the nation’s 22,000 retail showrooms are starting to sweat the little stuff now that the Internet has become such big stuff.

Sirius Satellite Radio

http://www.siriusradio.com/main.htm.

The Internet isn’t just changing the way we buy, but also what we buy; here’s the proof. Sirius Satellite Radio is direct-to-subscriber wireless radio for auto use, and BMW has already announced the service’s availability in its cars by the 2001 model year. This Web site is worth a visit just to see how revolutionary commercial-free satellite radio can be. Of course, the possibilities are limited only by the imagination, and Sirius’ pact with cable broadcaster CNBC, for example, gives a sense of how the non-musical options might evolve. Kenwood and Audiovox are already on board with Sirius as co-developers of in-dash receivers that will download a promised 50 channels of music and information programming. No doubt about it: The auto cockpit is about to undergo a Sirius makeover in the next few years. Seriously.

Garmin StreetPilot ColorMap

http://www.garmin.com/products/colorMap.

High-end autos are sprouting built-in GPS navigation systems like crazy; but that doesn’t mean you’ve got to be rich to find your satellite-tagged destination. Garmin, a leader in hand-held, marine, and avionics GPS systems, now has StreetPilot models (in color and gray-scale display versions) that have been designed specifically for terrestrial, automotive use. The biggest breakthrough for drivers, however, isn’t the improved 12-channel reception or the easy-to-scroll-while-driving function keys. It’s Garmin’s CD-ROM mapping software, named MapSource and MetroGuide USA. These allow you to load StreetPilot units with updatable, customizable mapping data for your specific trips and needs; and they provide StreetPilot with virtually the same uncanny sense of direction found in the best built-ins that Mercedes-Benz and Acura have to offer.

CarPictures.com

http://cars.MotorCities.com.

Perhaps the best way to describe CarPictures.com is to call it a virtual visual encyclopedia of the cars of the world. This is truly a grassroots effort at bringing together any and all available photos of ”every car ever produced on this planet.“ CarPictures boasts well-organized images of 172 different makes of cars, and it says there are at least 103 more nameplates that it’s still tracking down. Want to know what a Riley looks like? No prob. You can even turn it into wallpaper for your own Web site. But with all this presumed comprehensiveness, there’s a penalty to pay in the form of tedious downloads and unpredictable browser behaviors, since many of the images are actually linked from other source sites. Still, CarPictures is a great public service for the Internet auto buff, especially if you think you’ve seen it all.

Fun Drives

http://thoraxe.dyn. dhs.org/fundrives.

At the time of this writing, Fun Drives was only a few weeks old, and I was visitor No. 132. But this clever and well-designed site is sure to catch on as more ”Sunday drivers“ get the word. The idea is for driving enthusiasts all over the country—perhaps the world—to post their own favorite scenic drives and sporting tours for the benefit of the next guy who happens by. It’s an absolutely fascinating idea, if enthusiasts will support it. Think, for example, about finding yourself with an afternoon to kill in a strange city and finding a perfect three-hour scenic drive at Fun Drives to help you see the sights from behind the wheel. Thanks and best wishes to reader Erik Jacobs for getting this Fun Drives site ”on the road.“

SodaConstructor

http://sodaplay.com.

First, you’re going to want to write and tell me to get my eyes checked. Then you’re going to get so hooked playing around with SodaConstructor that you’ll probably get docked a week’s pay for noodling on the clock. So don’t come whining to me about falling short on the rent money. But if you’ve got even a modicum of self-control, introduce yourself to Soda at his Euclidian Utopia on the Web.

In a nutshell, this is a Web-based, interactive, dynamic geometry application that lets you design and manipulate two-dimensional models. The site’s intro attempts to describe the models as ”masses and springs...controlled by a wave to make pulsing muscle models...that bounce, roll, walk, etc.“ Suffice it to say that seeing is believing. And for true automotive techies, SodaConstructor may even have an instructional—or at least therapeutic—value, since its ”simulator“ algorithms exploit many of the same principles relevant to chassis tuning and vehicle dynamics. Or at least, that’s what you can tell your boss.

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