Looking further down the financial technology road, beyond the Internet and handheld wireless, Meridian Research Inc. sees — cars.

“The automobile is being transformed into the next mobile portal,” wrote Christine Barry, an analyst for the Newton, Mass., firm, in a report released last week.

Her study is one of the first to examine the potential of “automotive telematics” — essentially, wireless built-in computers in cars — for financial services.

Today, fewer than two million vehicles have telematics technology, usually a global satellite positioning system plus an extra-strength wireless link to a service hub and database. But Meridian predicts that nine million will have it by 2003.

Telematics-equipped automobiles can become as important as the Internet for banking, Ms. Barry said in an interview. “People are using their cars not only as a way to get places, but also as their second offices,” she said.

The average American spends 540 hours a year in the car, and Americans make between 50% and 70% of their cellular phone calls from cars, Ms. Barry said. Many of them view their time in the car as an opportunity to take care of business and shorten their to-do lists.

“That is a lot of hours people could use to take care of their financial needs,” Ms. Barry said.

Automotive telematics, developed for navigation and emergency services, has yet to attract banking partners. But for three months Fidelity Investments has offered a service through the leading telematics provider, OnStar, a General Motors Corp. subsidiary.

Fidelity customers can place trades, get balances, and receive stock quotes using OnStar. OnStar users who are not Fidelity customers can get delayed stock quotes.

Jim Griffin, a Fidelity spokes-man, said its voice-based OnStar service, called Virtual Advisor, allows for more “robust” use than cell-phone banking and is more convenient for drivers, who can use microphones in their cars.

“The opportunity for financial services is terrific,” Mr. Griffin said. “You are taking a device that is designed as a safety device but has a lot of other functionality to it, to enable customers to take care of their financial services in the car.”

Ms. Barry said financial institutions “have much to gain by partnering with telematics providers.” Those that do not follow Fidelity’s lead could find themselves at a competitive disadvantage, she said.

Safety concerns may be what will make or break in-car banking.

This summer New York became the first state to ban the use of handheld cell phones; the new law permits hands-free devices. Forty states and about 3,300 municipalities are considering legislation requiring headphones or speakers for using cell phones in cars, and separate bills have been introduced in the Senate and House that would ban use of handheld phones in vehicles, according to the National Safety Council.

Today’s vehicle telematics systems are voice-activated and hands-free, so such laws would not restrict their use. This may give the car systems a boost, Ms. Barry said — unless, of course, the laws grow more restrictive.

Nonetheless, she acknowledged, “it’s a little scary to think someone making a bad trade could be distracted while driving.”

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