Going Online on the Road in an Internet-Connected Car

Going Online on the Road

In-Car Internet Is Here, and More Mobile Web Surfing Is Coming

In the past few years, electronic gadgets have been added to cars that allow you to bring your entire music library along on an iPod, carry on a hands-free conversation on a mobile phone, watch movies or satellite TV in the backseat and even send and receive text messages via voice command. But one tech activity that's a pervasive part of most people's daily lives is absent from this list: Internet access.

That's about to change, as the first models with in-car Internet are now hitting U.S. shores. This new feature is currently cellular/subscription-based, but tech titan Microsoft is working on a system that would bring WiFi to the world of wheels, so that just down the road, in-car surfing will be even more affordable. But if you're an early adopter who wants to go online while on the road — beyond what's available on the small screen of a mobile phone — Web access in the car has arrived.

Three Systems in One

Autonet Mobile is the first (and still the only) company to offer full Internet access in a vehicle. The company's wireless router is designed to be installed out of sight in a trunk or cargo hold and taps power from a car's electrical system. The service works over 2G and 3G cellular-phone networks and uses Autonet's TRU Technology to create a stable connection and a rolling WiFi hot spot in your ride.

The Autonet router costs $499 not including installation and there's a $35 activation fee. You'll also need to sign up for one of two Autonet service plans: $29.95 a month for up to 1GB of data or $59.95 for up to 5GB. To put those numbers into perspective, Autonet claims a user can view approximately 6,000 pages a month on the $30 plan or 30,000 on the $60 plan.

Chrysler contracts with Autonet to supply its UConnect Web system, which launched in September, and Autonet recently signed an agreement with automotive electronics supplier Delphi. The UConnect Web option is available as a dealer-installed Mopar accessory, though the modem can be installed in almost any vehicle.

The price for the router and activation charge are identical to those of Autonet, and Chrysler estimates that installation will run between $35 and $50. The UConnect setup has only a single $29-a-month unlimited-data plan, and with both services a one-year contract is required, although a subscriber can cancel within 30 days without penalty.

A way to try Autonet's in-car Internet service without buying a router or committing to a data plan is when renting a car from Avis. Avis Connect is available at 13 of the rental car company's locations and is essentially a portable Autonet router that comes with a 12-volt power cord that plugs into a cigarette lighter, and a 120-volt cord for a wall socket. At $10.95 a day for the router and service, Avis Connect is a great way for business people to stay connected on the road, and it can be more cost-effective and convenient than paying for WiFi at a hotel or at hot spots like Starbucks.

We tried out both the Autonet and Avis Connect systems but came away less than impressed. While driving near Edmunds HQ in Santa Monica, California, with a laptop connected to the Autonet system, videos on YouTube had the stop-start quality of a dial-up connection and it took several minutes to upload photos to Flickr. When accessing e-mail and most Web pages, the system performed fine, and Autonet claims that most teens and kids use it for text and instant messaging in the backseat, and that the download speed depends on the strength of an area's cellular network.

Ford Tough Tech

Rather than focus on families, Ford's Work Solutions (FWS) is a suite of technologies geared toward contractors, and will be available in the 2009 F-150 and Super Duty pickups, 2009 E-Series vans and 2010 Transit Connect commercial vehicles. The centerpiece of the system is an in-dash computer that's powered by Microsoft Auto software, which provides Internet access through the Sprint mobile broadband network.

The automotive-grade computer has a 6.5-inch touchscreen monitor, 4GB of memory, SD card and USB ports, a stylus for use with the touchscreen and a wireless Bluetooth keyboard with a touch-pad mouse, and provides an integrated Garmin navigation system. It includes software that allows access to information stored on home or office networks; can create reports, spreadsheets and invoices; and will even print documents using a portable Bluetooth printer that's available as part of the FWS package.

Other elements of FWS include ToolLink, which keeps track of equipment using radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags, and Crew Chief, a telematics and diagnostic system that can locate and dispatch vehicles and keep tabs on fleet maintenance, mileage and fuel economy and costs. The FWS computer for an F-Series truck costs $1,195, and Sprint broadband service is $49.95 a month for unlimited data or $25 for 25MB. ToolLink is $1,120 for 50 RFID tags, while CrewChief costs $380 with a $19.95 monthly service charge.

Connected Navigation

In October, Best Buy introduced its own brand of Internet-connected portable navs: the Insignia NS-CNV10 with a 3.5-inch screen ($400) and the NS-CNV20 with a 4.3-inch screen ($500). The units have a built-in cellular modem that connects to Google Local Search and also allows users to send directions to the unit from a PC using Google Maps. Both come with a year of free service, after which the subscription fee is $99 a year.

Clarion's MiND (which stands for Mobile Internet Navigation Device) connects to the Internet using either WiFi or through a mobile phone via Bluetooth. It also includes a portable media player, and icons on its 4.8-inch touchscreen connect to Web sites like YouTube and MySpace. The $650 MiND went on sale this month, and Clarion claims that WiMax and the 3G version will be available in 2009.

In Europe, BMW currently offers full Internet access from the front seat when the vehicle is stopped and in the backseat while moving if the car is equipped with a rear-seat entertainment system. The company currently has no plans to bring the service to the U.S any time soon, but in September BMW Search was added to Stateside vehicles with the BMW Assist Convenience Plan, which costs $199 a year.

BMW's setup uses AT&T's EDGE network to perform a Google search for services (restaurant, hotel, etc.) in an area. The car's nav system can then direct the driver to the location, and a Bluetooth-connected phone can call ahead. The system is available on 2009 1 and 3 Series (except for the X3) and is standard on 5, 6 and 7 Series models.

Down the Road

With Ford's Sync system, Microsoft has successfully staked its territory in the car infotainment market. The company is now working on the common problem of providing a steady wireless connection in moving cars. Dubbed "ViFi" (for Vehicle WiFi), it's designed to deliver a more stable connection and do it less expensively than existing cellular-based solutions.

When using WiFi-based in-car Internet, dropouts can occur during hand-offs between networks as the vehicle travels between signal base stations. ViFi connects to multiple base stations simultaneously, using the strongest as an anchor and others as auxiliary backups. If the connection with the anchor station is lost, a backup takes its place, providing an uninterrupted connection. Microsoft has tested ViFi at its Redmond, Washington campus, but it will require citywide WiFi or WiMax networks before it can become available.

Just as no one could have predicted 10 years ago that we would have so much technology at our fingertips in cars today, Internet access while on the road is now possible, if limited. Once technological and safety hurdles are overcome, being connected to the Web in our cars should become as common as listening to our iPods.

To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.

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