An ammeter came standard on the Model T dashboard in the early years of the 20th Century, to measure the electric current running through the vehicle. And for an extra fee, drivers could be treated to a dealer-installed speedometer to help gauge the car’s top speed of 45 miles per hour. In the century that followed, technology and innovation changed the dashboard’s role in the driving experience. Indeed, styles shifted, gauges were added; audio equipment installed; and the digital era began. And at the onset of 2010, global automakers have again revved up their engines in the race to revolutionize the front seat.

Ford Motor (F) made a lot of noise at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) with the introduction of its MyFord Touch system. The new personalized driver interface builds upon the Sync technology Ford developed with Microsoft (MSFT) in 2008, which provides the car with an integrated, voice-activated mobile phone and digital music system. Created on the latest Microsoft Auto program, MyFord looks to take this idea quite a few steps further. Voice activation remains a focal point of this system, and with the assistance of Nuance Communications (NUAN), Ford has introduced enhanced speech capabilities that should improve vocal and language recognition. The centerpiece of the MyFord system, though, is the primary display screen. In addition to a pair of 4.2-inch LCD screens that sandwich an analog speedometer, an 8-inch, full-color touch screen rests in the center console. These days, drivers are accustomed to personalized music, climate control, and preset navigation settings, and MyFord is no different. However, Ford vehicles will now offer a variety of multimedia options, including Wi-Fi capability, additional USB ports, a built-in Internet browser, and an outlet for a keyboard connection.
The dashboard makeover is not limited to Detroit, however. In fact, the late-2009 launch of the Jaguar XJ, owned by Tata Motors (TTM), introduced drivers overseas to a similar setup. Two 8-inch touch screens are available is this costly model; One allows the driver to access internal controls or navigation tools. The second enables movies to be viewed from the comfort of the passenger seat. Audi, meanwhile, unveiled its latest dashboard technology, which provides instant Internet access from behind the wheel.

Although drivers will have to spend handsomely to take these cars home, upgrades will not be limited to luxury vehicles for very long. The MyFord Touch launches later this year in the U.S., starting with the 2011 Ford Edge crossover. Ford’s Lincoln and Mercury brands will have similar, yet slightly customized, versions as well. MyLincoln Touch also rolls out domestically this year, coming standard in all 2011 Lincoln MKX crossovers. Ford intends to introduce the rest of the world to this technology next year, with the all-new 2012 Ford Focus. The company plans to have Touch systems in 80% of vehicles, both in the U.S. and globally, by 2015. By then, most automakers will have incorporated similar advanced technology into the bulk of their global lineups. For example, Toyota Motor (TM) showrooms are also not far off from housing a new model Prius that boasts a dashboard equipped with high-speed Internet, movies on-demand, and multiplayer video games. Judging by Ford’s production schedule, this does not appear to be a fly-by-night fad.

And the big players in several outside industries couldn’t be happier to dive into a vast new market, one which registers sales of over 70 million vehicles annually. Along with Microsoft, tech behemoths Intel (INTC) and Google (GOOG) are likely to be two of the leading forces in “infotainment systems,” as the duo both introduced blueprints for video- and Internet-ready console screens at this year’s CES. Other chipmakers are likely to prosper here, as well, as automobiles are now capable of handling the electrical capacity of today’s processors. Indeed, NVIDIA’s (NVDA) mobile graphics are already utilized in Audi’s dashboard and console designs. Electrical and telecom equipment manufacturers are also likely to grab a piece of this pie. Alcatel-Lucent (ALU), for example, has a hand in the Toyota Prius designs.

Detroit and its foreign peers have come a long way from the ammeter and a speedometer that read 0-45 mph on the Model T. Automobiles are no longer just for getting around, they have transformed into multimedia centers on wheels.