Baby, You Can Network My Car

By Adam Stone

September 06, 2002

Wi-Fi has over taken the office, the airport, and the coffeeshop. The next stop might be in the dash, as your 802.11-equipped car downloads new music and pays for your tolls, gas, and drive-through purchases.

When it's a question of mobility, the United States has for almost a century proffered a single concise answer: Cars.

Looking to the very near future of 802.11 networks, some experts say that the automobile may again prove to be the "vehicle" of choice.

In a recent study, market research firm Allied Business Intelligence said the automotive industry is right now moving to incorporate Bluetooth wireless infrastructure into its vehicle design. While just 1 percent of new vehicles will include embedded Bluetooth nodes in 2003, the study predicts that number will swell to 19 percent by 2007.

The next step would then be 802.11 connections: Some 12 percent of new cars will include embedded 802.11 hardware by 2007, the study predicts. An 802.11 network might be used to pay tolls, charge gasoline purchases or warn drivers of upcoming road hazards.

Vehicle manufacturers see wireless tools as a way to pare down the costs of building a car, according to Frank Viquez, wireless analyst at Allied Business Intelligence. Bluetooth links, for instance, might allow automakers to use less wiring within a vehicle, while also allowing them a simple access point whereby to monitor the quality of a vehicle's construction as it makes its way down the assembly line.

Wireless links also might allow dealers to download vehicle status information on a regular basis. "One of the big costs to manufacturers is in warranties, so if they can download data and then adjust their warranties according to how someone drives, they can potentially save a lot of money," said Viquez.

A number of developers of wireless applications and devices are gearing up their efforts to meet the anticipated demand for such items by the auto industry.

Take, for example, Intersil Corp., with offices in Florida and California. The maker of wireless chipsets has worked with various automotive- and wireless-industry bodies to develop uniform standards that will govern 802.11 wireless standards in future automotive applications.

"There are pages and pages of applications that have been discussed" for automotive 802.11 uses, said Tim Godfrey, strategic marketing manager for Intersil. "We can envision 802.11 being used for vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Brake lights for example could be communicated by radio, or there could be things like electronic signs and warnings that convey information farther than you can actually see."

On a lighter note, applications might address Americans' need for amusement on the go. "You could park you car in the garage, for instance, then connect it to your home network and download audio and video entertainment content," said Godfrey.

An 802.11-equipped automobile also could give drivers the opportunity to do their Web surfing from convenient roadside locations. "One of the more significant Internet hotspots, like Wi-Fi hotspots. They will start at gas stations and truck stops, but also extend to drive-through retail locations, toll plazas, and so on," Godfrey predicted. Using 802.11 applications, "it is very easy to bring traditional and new Internet applications into the vehicle."

Before that happens, experts say, automakers first will Bluetooth-enable their products. At Extended Systems in Boise, ID, for example, the sales staff already is delivering Bluetooth protocol stacks to a vendor who works closely with automaker BMW. In theory, such stacks could be integrated into an automobile's electronics system in order to vastly extend the interactive capabilities of cell phones.

"It enables a user to bring a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone into the car and make a wireless connection to an in-dash system. Fitted with a voice-recognition software system, this would allow them to make hands-free use of that phone," explained Charlie Denton, product manager for wireless connectivity solutions at Extended Systems.

Add a factory installed in-dash microphone and speakers, and the possibilities are endless. "The phone can be in the briefcase, it can be in the side of the door or in the cup holder, and you can still use the capabilities of that phone to make calls," said Denton.

This could be a big selling in Europe and Asia, where many municipalities already have outlawed the use of handheld phones while driving. In the United States, too, such laws are starting to take hold, and thus an in-dash wireless setup could help automakers to add perceived value to their vehicles.

First and foremost, though, onboard 802.11 networks likely would be used to help drivers spend their money more efficiently.

"By far the greatest amount of interest shown in 802.11a use has been by the ETC (electronic toll collection) community. Gasoline retailers such as Shell and Exxon Mobil have also been expressing increasing interest in the technology," according to the study from Allied Business Intelligence.

Before such applications can take off, however, automakers and applications developers likely will have to allay consumer fears regarding security.

With 802.11 security flaws already widely reported, consumers will almost certainly require some reassurance that their financial data and other information is safe before they will agree to pay for toll charges and gasoline purchases via a wireless network.

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