The revelation that Chrysler would offer in-vehicle internet access with the new UConnect Web system garnered some buzz in both automotive and IT circles this morning, but we were curious about how it all works. Luckily, we had been invited to Chrysler's proving grounds for the day, where we were given the opportunity to take the system for a "surf."
We hopped into a 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee that, along with several other "infotainment" systems (including Sirius Backseat TV and iPod connectivity), sported the WiFi hotspot. Also present were a few gizmos and gadgets - all capable of some form of wireless networking - ready for testing.
While playing web-based trivia on a Nintendo Wii is more for fun and games, Keefe Leung, manager of Chrysler's Advanced Connectivity Strategies group, provided a few different ways to access the World Wide Web. We played around with internet access on an iPod Touch, browsed internet radio stations on a Sansa MP3 player, and hit up Automobile Magazine's own website on a Windows laptop to see what else was new in the world.
UConnect Web makes use of a 3G cellular data network, giving passengers - or those within 100 feet of the car - a 400-kilobit-per-second connection (that's aboasut 3 megabytes per minute).
Although customers would purchase service contracts through AutoNet Mobile, the supplier of UConnect Web, the actual network stems from a major cellular company. To date, the firm hasn't disclosed which provider it uses, but Leung hints it's "one of the largest" 3G providers available. We take that to mean it's either T-Mobile or Sprint, as the latter plans on having the biggest 3G network in the country by 2009.
So how well does it work? If you're used to browsing on 3G networks - via a BlackBerry, for instance - then you'll love it. The limited bandwidth seems to work best with smaller devices, or at least with web pages that are optimized for mobile viewing. We were able to get some mobile-based search engines and newspaper sites to easily load on the iPod Touch, but when it came time to load more image-intensive sites on the laptop, things briefly bogged down.
We didn't get the chance to add a new device to the wireless network, but Leung insists the UConnect network isn't extremely vulnerable to uninvited users. The router can be secured with WEP encryption and can be further restricted to specific devices via their MAC addresses.
UConnect Web is slated to be available as a dealer-installed accessory on all new Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep models, regardless of content level or existing electronic equipment. Leung says the installation of the router - sized slightly smaller than an in-house WiFi hub - is fairly simple. Although the router in the Jeep was placed in the cargo hold for all to see, Leung says the company's working on finding standardized out-of-sight installation points (especially under-seat locations) where dealers can mount the hardware.
In August, dealers should begin selling the UConnect Web package for $499, with an additional $35 to $50 in installation charges. Customers then will have to face a $35 activation fee, and register for a one-, two-, or three-year service package, priced at $29 per month.
While in-car internet access brings a new realm of connectivity and entertainment to passengers, it also raises some issues about safe use. Drivers are already taxed with (perhaps) too many distractions behind the wheel; will a WiFi hotspot make things worse? That remains to be seen. Leung says drivers need to take responsibility for their actions behind the wheel, and need to place any distraction - be it food, phone, or computer - aside when rolling.
We certainly hope that's the case, for while Chrysler may be the first to offer AutoConnect's WiFi hotspot, a lack of an exclusivity contract with AutoNet Mobile means they certainly won't be the last.