Hotspot Road Trip, Part 6

I have to be in San Geronimo, California—a small town in Marin County about twenty miles north of San Francisco—for a college roommate’s wedding. Tonight is the rehearsal dinner, so being late and stuck in heavy traffic on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge is causing me to contemplate vehicular homicidal fantasies, while also bemoaning the fact that the SmarTraveler service is not available in the Bay area.

When I lived in Boston, a city with traffic as congested yet even more unpredictable than San Francisco’s, I relied heavily on the service. SmarTraveler provides traffic updates via the Web and through phone numbers you can call while stuck in traffic and pining for alternative routes. This traffic intelligence is anything but Wi-Fi related, but there is a presumed market in such content in the Wi-Fi world.

“There’s been a lot of buzz in Detroit lately about the addition of Wi-Fi to vehicles,” says Cliff Hirsch, publisher of Telecom Trends , an insider telecommunications newsletter. “Once vehicles have wireless networks, the logical next steps is for content delivery over those networks.”

The initial impulse to bring networking to vehicles centers on safety and maintenance. With sensors plastered throughout car, various systems can communicate, creating a much more elaborate and comprehensive version of the old idiot lights. Similarly, information about mileage and performance can be collected and delivered to the manufacturer so potential problems can be headed off, and routine maintenance reminders can be sent to drivers.

However, before that collected information is worth anything, there must be an upload point, a place for the vehicle to communicate with the Internet.

“The two most obvious places are gas stations and convenience stores,” Hirsch says. According to Hirsch, Detroit is looking well past simple diagnostic benefits and envisioning gas-station networks as potential entertainment hubs. So, not only will you pick up a quart of milk when you stop for gas, but you can also download that movie you were going to rent as well. “One of our demos at nearly every trade show we attend is a Wi-Fi equipped vehicle that downloads movies from a Wi-Fi kiosk,” says Milton Beach, a spokesman for vehicular entertainment equipment maker Delphi.

Before focusing on movies, however, music presents a more manageable near-term entertainment opportunity. “This summer, we equipped a Lincoln Aviator with Wi-Fi and sent it on a tour of the country to show dealers and customers the potential of Wi-Fi technology,” Beach adds.

Due to the upsurge of Wi-Fi home networks, Delphi believes that one of the first Wi-Fi entertainment features will be the ability to synchronize between home and in-vehicle networks. With the Aviator’s Wi-Fi-enabled entertainment system, which is due out commercially in 2006, you can synchronize your PC’s music files with your car radio, giving you an on-the-go music library.

Sounds good, but will people pay an extra $200 bucks just to avoid burning CDs? Well, the vision goes beyond this. According to Ford (the parent company of Lincoln), what was once simply a radio will soon possess the capability to not only transfer and organize music, but also pay for a meals, tolls, and parking-garage fees.

“Once vehicles are equipped with Wi-Fi, the potential for applications grows exponentially,” Beach says.

Both Ford and Delphi believe that third-party developers will rush in to target these new networks once they hit the road.

“Wi-Fi’s high data rates and long range enables new applications that can’t be easily provided by other wireless solutions,” says Charles Wu, director of Ford’s Research and Advanced Engineering department. “We expect drivers to use their radio with Wi-Fi as their portal to their home, business and the fast growing number of public and private hot spots.”

ABI Research agrees and predicts that by 2008 there will be 25 million vehicles with either Bluetooth or 802.11 networks on board. If compelling services come along, the after-market sector—which is what I would need to outfit this old Catalina with Wi-Fi—would push the installed base much higher than that.

But back to my complaint when I started this article: traffic intelligence. If I had the ability to check real-time road conditions at my last gas stop, I would never have taken the construction-heavy Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Taking synchronization beyond music, why couldn’t I enter a route into my vehicle, with that route amended as I go along due to changing road conditions? All of this in a system potentially much cheaper than satellite-based GPS systems.

I’m not alone in this line of thinking. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation considers Wi-Fi as a potential means for creating a nationwide road safety network. The network could give traffic and weather alerts, delivered right to the vehicle as you pass a transmitter. Add just a little on-board intelligence, and you would know to take that shortcut around the construction even in cities you’ve never been in before.

Jeff Vance is a freelance technology writer and consultant, who focuses on trends in wireless communications, next-generation networking, and Internet infrastructure. If you have ideas about hotspots he should visit or questions he should investigate while on the road, you can contact him at [email protected].

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