The definition of a hot car is about to change. Speed? Style? That's all well and good, but how can a car be hot if it doesn't have an Internet hot spot?
Yes, after several false starts, the telematics industry is about to do what it has long promised - or threatened, depending on your view: turn your car into a mobile office and multimedia playpen.
Web-surfing smart phones and Bluetooth connections have opened the pipeline, and automakers are going with a flow whose direction has become clear: networking portable devices rather than installing pricey and rapidly obsolete hardware in the car.
Mercedes-Benz and BMW took baby steps for 2008, letting users send Google Maps addresses and data from a home computer to the car's navigation system. For 2009, all BMW models with the fourth-generation iDrive system take the next step, letting drivers connect to Google Maps' powerful database via the car's navigation screen.
BMW's 2009 7-series will go a step further, offering full Internet connectivity. But that's only for Europe; American customers will be limited to the Google Maps functions, with no ability to surf the full Web, even while the car is stopped. BMW is worried about U.S. liability issues.
Chrysler, however, has no such qualms. For 2009, every Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep can be equipped with a Wi-Fi connection for laptops, music players, and other devices. At a cost of just under $600, dealers will install and activate a wireless router with built-in modem, with subscribers paying an additional $29 for monthly service. The Web service is the latest in Chrysler's suite of UConnect features, which includes Bluetooth phone synchronization and Sirius satellite television.
Lapt0p-wielding riders can play video games online, send E-mail, download music, or do anything else Web-related. Keefe Leung, Chrysler's connectivity specialist, said that in the future, services such as Internet radio or movies could be integrated into the car's audio/video systems.
Entertainment aside, Leung said the system will appeal to mobile businesspeople from contractors to realtors - whom Chrysler expects will pull over before scanning blueprints or checking appointments. The system extracts an electronic declaration from users that they won't surf while driving.
"These systems don't detract from safety if they're used responsibly," Leung claims. "People demand to be connected everywhere, from home to Starbucks, and the car is the one room they're not connected in today."
Lawyer screens aside, there's no doubt that for some distracted drivers, connectivity will end up describing the union between their front bumper and the car in front of them. Already, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis estimates that 2600 Americans are killed and as many as 570,000 are injured each year in cell-phone-related auto accidents. Fatal crashes have spurred six states to ban drivers from either texting, watching videos, or making calls with handheld phones; at least seventeen states ban cell phone use entirely for minor or novice drivers.
Despite legitimate safety concerns, Pandora's box has been opened - the metaphorical one, although Pandora Web radio can stream music to some cars - and there's no going back.
Some benefits, at least, are clear: Web-based navigation is far superior to today's vehicle-based systems, which are no better than their in-car database. Any parent might prefer to tranquilize rear-seat riders via a limitless Internet video library rather than a case of juice-stained DVDs. Automakers are just beginning to tap connectivity's potential to boost safety and convenience, from systems monitoring and vehicle software downloads to remote unlocking, accident notification, and emergency medical response. And car-to-car networking is a tentative step toward so-called Intelligent Highway Systems that could reduce accidents or help unclog urban freeways and streets.
Ultimately, the point won't be to outlaw four-wheeled Web-surfing (a quixotic quest) but to make it work smarter, via improved voice controls and interfaces - and improved drivers. Let's just hope that the guy in the other lane is watching the road, not YouTube.