March 28, 2011

In-Car Wi-fi On Its Way

The information superhighway is catching up to real highways thanks to automotive wi-fi technology allowing vehicles to be hotspots on the move. With consumers warming to the notion of more connectivity in their vehicles, in-car information and entertainment is only a smartphone or tablet away, AFP reports.

"Initially, putting internet access in the car sounds like a distraction and frivolous but as time passes it will become a part of our lives and we will feel uncomfortable not having access," Jeff Kagan, an independent telecoms analyst, told AFP's Rob Lever. "I think this is going to grow into a vibrant sector."

iSuppli, a market research firm based in California, expects significant world-wide growth in shipments of in-car wi-fi systems to 7.2 million units by 2017, up from just 174,000 last year.

Ford Motor Company has offered wi-fi in selected vehicle models since 2010 and some form of internet access is an option for many other automakers including General Motors, BMW, Audi, Saab and Chrysler.

Finnish telecom giant Nokia announced in mid-March, the launch of a Car Connectivity Consortium of 11 companies to standardize connectivity among vehicle manufacturers, with Daimler, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, and Volkswagen coming together.

California-based Autonet Mobile, which recently signed agreements with General Motors and Subaru, touts itself as the "first internet-based telematics and applications service platform" for the auto market. With over 10,000 US customers using its CarFi service at $29 a month, said chief executive Sterling Pratz.

Consumers seek entertainment options that are more suited to recent mobile technology options for passengers in their vehicles and use wi-fi for videos, gaming and social networking, Pratz tells AFP. "They feel there is a better way to stay entertained in the car compared with the DVD player. They lead a connected lifestyle and when they get in the car they feel disconnected," he said.

Pratz expressed excitement about upcoming applications that allow, among other things, parents to monitor speeds of their teen drivers and to trace their car if it is missing.

Audi is refining a system in Europe, from Marvell Technology and Harman Automotive to create a moving hotspot allowing up to eight devices to be connected.

"Finally, the car is connected to the rest of our lives," says Weili Dai, Marvell's co-founder and vice president in announcing the system. "I believe today's consumers want the convenience of seamless connectivity and live content whenever and wherever they choose -- whether in the home, office, classroom or automobile."

Analysts expect the market to grow as more entertainment, navigation and vehicle diagnostic applications become available. However, one hurdle for developers of the technology is knowing whether to offer wi-fi as a separate data system or allow consumers to connect their own.

Ford's wi-fi system called MyFord Touch, adds SYNC connectivity for mobile phones and music players, offers no separate data plan but instead allows consumers' devices, smart phones, tablet computers or wireless cards to be the brains of the system. Ford expects to have this wi-fi system on 80 percent of its cars sold in North America within four years, Hall said, and is planning to launch the system globally next year.
This avoids an additional data fee and enables quicker and more convenient adaptation for changing markets of wireless devices, explained Ford spokesman Alan Hall. "We created the ability for a customer to bring in their 3G and 4G devices, and the car can take that signal and turn it into a wi-fi signal for four or five passengers in the car," Hall told AFP.

Edmunds.com spokesman Doug Newcomb explains that the Ford strategy appears to make more sense over asking customers to pay an additional monthly data subscription.

"Several years ago before smartphones and the iPad, (a separate wi-fi system) might have made more sense," Newcomb said. "Now, people are saying, "ËœIf I have an iPad with 3G why would I need this in the car, why should I pay for another data plan?'... I think the focus now will be how to incorporate the smartphone into the vehicle."


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