It was the Manglapus family vacation.
Ria Manglapus, a colleague of mine, was driving with earphones. She was listening to her favorite jazz station on a portable satellite radio -- the Delphi XM2go.
That meant she could listen to the same station, with few interruptions, on the entire 700-mile trip from her home in Northern Virginia to her vacation spot near Chicago.
Manglapus's two sons -- 10-year-old Q ("just 'Q,' thank you") and Bori, 15 -- were in the second row of the 2003 Honda Odyssey minivan watching a movie on a small, ceiling-mounted video screen. They were joined by their cousin Martin, 11.
When the movie ended, the boys slept. When they awakened, they pulled out tiny consoles and played electronic games.
Occasionally, Manglapus would point out a geographic point of interest. The boys politely acknowledged her attempt at education but then returned to their electronic beeps, booms and bangs. Manglapus returned to her earphones.
The family traveled with its own communications system -- three Nokia cell phones and two long-range Motorola walkie-talkies. And they took along a backup entertainment package just in case they wound up in a roadside hotel without cable television -- a portable digital video disc player that also doubled as an MP3 music library and player. The DVD/MP3 player could be used in the minivan as well.
Sociologists might cite the Manglapus vacation as evidence of growing dysfunction in American family life. But consumer electronics manufacturers and retailers, and a growing number of automobile companies, see it as a gold mine.
The numbers are scattered, but they are nonetheless impressive. Sales are booming, for example, in the satellite radio industry, dominated by District-based XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. and Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. in New York. They are subscription radio services, in much the manner of satellite and cable television. Satellite radio sales totaled $300 million last year, a 140 percent increase over 2003, according to figures provided by the Consumer Electronics Association.
Sales of mobile DVD players are growing, along with those of mobile electronic navigation systems in cars and trucks. Sales of mobile video display screens and related equipment were $830 million last year, almost double their 2003 revenue. The CEA is predicting $2 billion in sales of mobile electronics accessories of all sorts this year.
We are witnessing a lucrative migration of the pleasures and conveniences of home to the automobile, afforded by rapid advances in digital electronics, said Tracey Malone, consumer electronics expert for Best Buy.
The growth of digital electronics is pushing the trend. Technology is changing the sociology of American family life.
Miniaturization enhances portability. It means a television screen can be carried in a pocket or installed in a car. It means a version of the kitchen refrigerator or juicer can be carried in the cargo area of a sport-utility vehicle, or in an automobile's trunk.
And if fun things can be taken along on the trip, work-related items can make the journey, too. Versions of the Dodge Dakota and Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks, for example, can easily be outfitted to accommodate laptops and portable fax machines. Available voice-recognition programs allow multi-tasking drivers to tell the car to dial a phone number. Notes dictated into a recorder while driving can later be downloaded into a personal computer at home and translated into text via an Xpressions Media TalkItTypeIt program. The list of possibilities of what now can be done in a car or truck electronically seems endless.
It is a matter of people wanting to "take their home experiences out on the road with them," Malone said. "Digital living is all about personalization and mobilization . . . about taking the products and technology that you already own with you and making them work the way you want them to work," he said.
Big chain stores such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy have formed new retail divisions to handle the growing demand for gas-and-go electronic gadgetry. For example, Best Buy executives say they have 3,200 certified mobile electronics installers working at the company's 660 stores nationwide. In 2004, the company said, it did 2 million automotive installations of communications, entertainment and convenience electronics items, such as refrigerators, in the United States.
It is a boom accompanied by some headaches.
Automobile manufacturers are scrambling to redesign their vehicles to accommodate all of the portable electronics consumers may want to take on their road trips. The problem is how to anticipate what those items might be. But the reality is that "there is no way we can do that," said Ron Miller, project leader for Ford Motor Co.'s intelligent vehicle technologies group.
"Something introduced today can be obsolete within three months. The best we can do is to find a way to make our vehicles more accessible to whatever is coming," Miller said.
To that end, Ford has been working on "power line communications" -- that is, finding a way to make the wires that carry an automobile's electric currents double as conduits for high-speed data transmission. Success in that endeavor would allow passengers to use the power lines in their cars and trucks to, for example, surf the Internet. Major car companies have redesigned some of their cars and trucks to more easily accept data storage devices, such as iPods and MP3 equipment, which can store hundreds of pieces of music in a minuscule place. Using one of those devices in the 2006 Cadillac DTS sedan, for example, is a simple matter of plugging it into the car's entertainment console -- no fuss, no bother, no rewiring or rerouting of any kind required.
All this activity means more pressure on the consumer electronics industry to wed vehicle safety with commerce. Automotive safety experts are wary of the trend toward turning vehicle cabins into family rooms and office cubicles. Video screens are not likely to decrease driving risks, safety experts say. CEA executives agree. The association's Mobile Electronics Division is pushing for a worldwide regulation requiring the installation of entertainment video screens in the rear cabins of cars and trucks, out of the driver's field of vision.
Under the association's proposed global standard, the only screens allowed in the front cabins of vehicles would be informational, such as navigational screens, or entertainment screens that function only when the vehicle is in "park" or when the vehicle's parking brake is applied.
Manglapus says she is willing to go along with those cautions, as long as no one tries to take away her satellite radio, which she says calms her and puts her "in another world."
"I was at peace on that trip," she said. "I could listen to my music and concentrate on driving while they played their video games and watched their movies."
But is that family togetherness, which is what family vacations are supposed to be about?
"Everybody was happy," Manglapus said. "We did a lot of things together. But the main thing is that there was no fighting. It was peaceful, restful -- and that is what family vacations are supposed to be about."