Forget the shopping list, let the fridge order the milk

The concept of the "intelligent home" has been around for a long time but Britain is now starting to see a series of new developments which incorporatedigital and wireless technology.

The concept of the "intelligent home" has been around for a long time but Britain is now starting to see a series of new developments which incorporatedigital and wireless technology.

One of the most ambitious UK projects comes from property group RDL which is developing a site called east14.com in London's Docklands. The idea is to develop a "networked village" that will incorporate state-of- the-art data-processing centres as well as digitally wired houses and flats.

Features available include the ability to run a bath to the right depth and at the right temperature via remote control. Buyers will also be able to draw their curtains, and operate heating, lighting and security devices remotely. Automatic robots will vacuum the carpet while the buyer is at work and an intelligent fridge will read the bar codes on the shopping and automatically re-order milk and bread when they have run out.

Prices will range from £200,000 to £400,000, though each technological extra comes at an additional cost.

The developers admit that technology such as remote controlled curtains has been around for a long time. But they believe that the rapid development of the internet and wireless technology has made theses advances accessible to the general public rather than being merely gimmicks. RLD believes a typical buyer will be a City banker or IT expert who is working on an internet idea in his spare time but doesn't want to work on it using poor technology in his back bedroom. The idea is that if new Net ideas take-off, their founders can move to one of the development's small business units.

Also heading into a hi-tech wonderland is Laing Homes, the Hertfordshire-based housebuilder which opened an "Internet home" almost a year ago. The house in Watford included electrical appliances and even a garden-watering system that could be operated remotely using a bespoke website. Laing is now incorporating digital wiring into all its new homes, even £69,000 starter flats.

But according to Mercer Management Consulting, the problem with these ideas is that just because these ideas are possible, it does not mean people will want them enough to pay good money for them.

Mercer takes the example of the Time Warner trial in Orlando, Florida, in 1995. Households involved in the trial could shop in virtual 3D shopping malls and play multi-player games. But the only technological advance trialists said they would be prepared to pay for was "time shift television" which enabled them to watch their favourite programmes at any time. The other advances were seen as neat novelties whose attraction would soon fade.

There is a danger that many of the whizzier modern gadgets will suffer the same fate. Digital cabling that enables fast Net access is one thing, but will the great mass of consumers really pay top dollar for an intelligent fridge that will automatically order groceries?

* Easyrentacar, the online car rental service, seems to be irritating as many customers as it pleases these days. The most serious complaints relate to the company's apparently cavalier approach to making additional charges to customers' credit cards without their permission.

One Independent reader rented an A-class Mercedes from easyRentacar in southern Spain in August having been lured in by the seemingly low price of £110 for the week plus £5 preparation fee and a further £15 loss/damage waiver. This came to a total of £130.

On returning the car the customer was unable to find a member of staff to check it over. But satisfied that the car was undamaged and had been returned with a full tank of petrol, the customer flew home thinking no more of it. But when they opened their next Visa statement they found, not just the original £130 charge but an additional £100 on top. After a lengthy e-mail conversation the customer was told the charge had been made for a scratch on the front-door mirror housing.

Another family rented a car to drive to a holiday villa located down an unmade road. They returned the car which was checked over and cleared by a member of staff. Again when the customer received their credit card bill an additional £100 charge had been made for damage to the paintwork that had apparently been discovered later. After a furious dialogue with easyRentacar, the money was eventually refunded.

The concern here is that easyRentacar is marketing itself as a low-cost operator and the consumers' friend, whilst clobbering customers with extra charges.

In its defence, easyRentacar says its terms are clearly stated in its rental agreement and that it is perfectly normal for car rental companies to charge for damage not covered by the rental agreement. It claims it is deliberately trying to offer a service where the various parts of the rental cost are itemised so customers can see what they are paying for. The firm says it is also trying to avoid a situation where a careful motorist is effectively subsidising one who might thrash a car from London to Glasgow over a weekend with a bit of off-road driving thrown in.

Even so, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the Easy group's self-promoting founder, may like to consider whether a so-called consumers' champion should be operating in this way.

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