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Turning Cars Into Havens of Entertainment, Comfort

At the 2005 North American International Auto Show this past week, the Ford Motor Company unveiled a concept car it calls a "rolling urban command center," equipped with a rear hatch that resembles a bank vault (complete with combination lock) and a 45-inch flat-screen TV in the back.

Though the SYNus is not likely to make it to showroom floors anytime soon, it illustrates an increasingly common approach to cars as mini-living rooms. Considering the average American now spends about 100 hours a year just commuting to work, automakers and providers of after-market accessories are increasingly gearing their products to make cars entertainment centers as well as transportation items.

Detroit Public Radio's Celeste Headlee explains more about concept cars such as the SYNus.

Why Make Concept Cars?

Concept cars are generally seen as prototypes, or trial balloons at auto shows for new or groundbreaking designs. They may or may not ever become accessible to the public.

Most people agree that the first real concept car was Buick's Y-Job. It was unveiled in New York in 1939 and included several radical items, such as pop-up headlights and a motorized top. GM toured several "dream cars" following World War II, but the models weren't referred to as concept cars until the late 1970s.

A small number of concept cars actually make it to the assembly line; most end up in museums. These vehicles are usually unveiled at auto shows around the globe and are displayed at various locations for about six months before they disappear completely. Many have no internal workings; they are simply meant to illustrate an idea about where car design is going or how new technology can be implemented in a vehicle, and they give engineers an opportunity to flesh out design plans.

Concept cars are also a great marketing tool. The most extreme and innovative vehicles are sure to give automakers plenty of press coverage when they are premiered.

Some concept cars have had a longer shelf life: The 1956 Lincoln Futura concept eventually became the Batmobile in the 1960s television series. The Ford Ka was produced in 1996, two years after being introduced as a concept vehicle.

2005 was a busy year for concept cars. Dozens were unveiled at the New York Auto Show this spring. GM introduced the Sequel, a vehicle that travels up to 300 miles on its hydrogen supply, and accelerates to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds.

The Infiniti Kuraza has six doors -- with the third row doors on each side operating from rear hinges -- and three rows of large, luxurious side-by-side pairs of individual seats. The Jeep Hurricane has two 5.7-liter Hemi engines, one in the front and one in the back, producing a total of 670 hp and 740 lb-ft of torque. The Hurricane also features a turn radius of absolutely zero, because both front and rear tires can turn inward.

Although concept cars are generally radical designs that are here and gone in a short time, they are often important indications of where automotive design in headed in the next three to five years.

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Celeste Headlee