DETROIT - As their average commute time rises, Americans are making their vehicles increasingly homelike, with cushy seats, multiple zones of climate control and DVD players. So it's no surprise that the next big thing in vehicle accessories is satellite television.
"People want the same entertainment and services they have at home in their car," said Chris Watson, a spokesman for Rhode Island-based KVH Industries Inc., which first introduced satellite TV in vehicles two years ago. "It really is becoming an extension of the living room."
Cadillac is now offering KVH's TracVision satellite system as a dealer-installed option on its Escalade sport utility vehicle, an industry first. GM is considering pre-wiring its SUVs for satellite TV starting with 2007 models, Watson said.
This summer, Avis Rent A Car began offering TracVision on Hummer H3 rentals in Phoenix as part of a test program.
It takes about three hours for a dealer or electronics retailer to install satellite TV on vehicles already equipped with flip-down screens for DVD players or navigation systems. With the TracVision system, a 3-foot-wide circular antenna is affixed to the top of the vehicle, and a cable is inserted through the roof. The antenna is about 5 inches high.
Screens can be placed all over the vehicle, including the dashboard, headrests and the trunk, where some tailgaters are now installing large-screen TVs. A handful of sports stars and celebrities have as many as six screens in their vehicles, Watson said.
But the most popular location for the screens is the ceiling in the middle of the back seat, Watson said. Forty-five percent of sport utility vehicles produced for the U.S. market this year have those screens in them, Watson said.
Once the system is installed, viewers can watch more than 140 channels through DirecTV. Vehicle owners can continue to use navigation systems or DVD players on their screens.
Safety advocates question whether the technology is just one more dangerous distraction. Already, 40 states have banned drivers from putting video screens in a place where they can see them, although there are exceptions for navigation systems.
"Drivers need to be reminded that driving is a very complex task requiring full attention," said Col. Jim Champagne of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which has said it's not encouraging use of the technology.
Watson said KVH installs a kill switch that will automatically turn off the TV in the front seat when the vehicle starts moving. Headphones also are available for viewers so the TVs are less distracting to the driver, Watson said.
"We do not encourage people to have video screens operating where the driver can see them," Watson said.
Watson wouldn't say how many satellite TV systems have been installed in vehicles, and a spokeswoman for Cadillac didn't have figures immediately available. But the consulting company Frost & Sullivan has estimated that 3 million vehicles will have satellite TV by 2011.
Right now, the cost is prohibitive for many consumers. TracVision costs $2,295, and customers pay extra for DirecTV access. If they get DirecTV in their homes, installing it in their vehicles costs $4.99 a month. It's $41.99 a month if they don't get DirecTV.
So far, TracVision is most popular in Florida, Texas and California, where there are long stretches of open road. The satellites don't work as well in urban areas where tall buildings often block the signals.
Seventy-four percent of the systems have been installed in SUVs, while 9 percent are in recreational vehicles and 6 percent are in pickups, according to KVH data. Buyers say they're most likely to watch news, weather, sports and children's programs, Watson said.