Cars With Wi-Fi Hitting the New Information Highway

Consumers don’t want to leave home without their wireless devices, allowing connectivity to be offered in places today that seemed unheard of just a handful of years ago. The trend will only accelerate as car makers see an “option-tunity” for Wi-Fi in automobiles; research firm iSuppli predicts integrated Wi-Fi systems in 7.2 million cars by 2017, a more than forty-fold increase from the 174,000 connected cars expected to hit the roads this year. Wi-Fi by itself is less useful than mobile broadband, however, and the auto industry is taking different routes to accomplish full connectivity to the cars of tomorrow.

Ford’s (s f) Sync system, for example, doesn’t provide true mobile broadband access by itself, but can turn the entire car into a giant hotspot when a customer-provided, USB, mobile, broadband dongle is plugged into the car. By choosing to implement a less expensive Wi-Fi radio, Ford keeps connectivity costs down and allows the car to be connected on mobile broadband, or free hotspots on the road. I’ve often wanted to connect a car to my home network so I can shoot addresses to the navigation system from a computer with a full-keyboard, and Sync would work just fine for that.

On the other hand, the 2010 2011 Audi A8 includes an integrated 3G radio to supplement Wi-Fi through a Marvell (s mrvl) mobile hotspot solution. This web-connected vehicle is a rolling MiFi device too, sharing its data connection with up to eight WiFi-capable devices, such as tablets, smartphones, and portable gaming handhelds. Mobile broadband is getting the devices to the web, but it’s Wi-Fi that’s the equivalent to a broadband “last mile,” although in this case, it’s really the last few feet.

ISuppli suggests that automotive companies embracing Wi-Fi enjoy a competitive advantage over those that forego offering a wireless option. That makes sense, because Ford is already finding potentially new revenue opportunities in connected cars by wooing developers to make car-specific applications. Audi’s integrated approach may be an even bigger gold mine. Since Audi provides the 3G connection in addition to the Wi-Fi, unlike Ford, it can capture user data from the device: websites, preferences, search terms and more. So Wi-Fi in the car might be a consumer “must have” even at the same time that very pipe is providing carmakers with information they can leverage for killer apps for the newest information highway.

There’s one road hazard with these connected cars, however: additional distractions to drivers who may find it easier to check Facebook, read email or engage in some other web-based activity. We’ve already seen studies indicating that texting while driving increases the chances of an accident by 23 times, so I can only imagine that more immersive surfing activities while driving raises the odds of an accident to even higher levels.

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