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Wi-Fi hits the highway

In-car wireless puts some auto-buyers online. Will it drive them to distraction?

By Contributor for The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 2009

Jud Guitteau


Despite its importance in daily life, Internet access is still mostly an indoor activity. Wireless routers might stretch the Web to your front yard. But once you hit the road, say bye-bye to Wi-Fi.

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That is, unless you drive a Cadillac.

In April, the luxury General Motors division launched a branded Wi-Fi service in its CTS sports sedan, a model that spokesperson David Caldwell says is Cadillac’s “centerpiece brand.”

This early example of dealer-installed wireless joins the several burgeoning plans that want to bring the information super highway to the highway. But some wonder if the Web has extended its reach too far. As überconnected drivers cheer, and auto dealers hope for a new hit product during this recession, safety advocates warn that cars don’t need any more distractions.

Cadillac’s new box taps into the Internet through mobile phone signals. It connects to nearby cellular towers and converts the information into a language that most computers understand: Wi-Fi.

“It’s just like going to a Wi-Fi hotspot,” says Christine Williams, public relations manager for start-up Autonet in San Francisco, which designed the Cadillac system.

The box is not a built-in feature. Instead, the carmaker is offering Wi-Fi directly through the aftermarket. Each in-car router fits into the trunk of the CTS and is hard-wired to power up when the driver turns on the engine.

Cadillac sells the boxes for $499 and charges a monthly fee of $29 to $59, depending on usage.

Carmakers traditionally launch new technology in their highest-end brands with the expectation that once adopted by high-income consumers, it will expand to other models. (The CTS sedan costs up to $59,730.)
This time, however, the Wi-Fi service might remain within Cadillacs, due to recessionary caution.

“If we have a good experience with this on the first go-round, the next step [would be to] authorize it pretty quickly into other Cadillac vehicles.  But I would be little cautious how far into marketplace this can go,” says Mr. Caldwell from Cadillac. “It’s expensive, honestly.... It’s difficult to say at this point in the game where it’s going to go.”

Cadillac’s Wi-Fi rollout is not the first, but it is one of the most direct. Ford and Chrysler have each found success promoting factory-installed multimedia systems that combine some element of Internet access.
For instance, Chrysler’s UConnect (also by Autonet) and Ford’s Sync systems are voice-activated. They allow users to send and receive text messages, dial phone numbers without taking their hands off the wheel, and control portable music players. The Chrysler system also includes a router for Wi-Fi access.

Cadillac is not bundling its router inside a branded entertainment service on purpose, says Caldwell.

“We want it to be a little bit customizable,” he says. For systems like Sync or UConnect, “sometimes it may be difficult for consumers to know what’s in there.” Cadillac’s pitch is simple: It works just like a Wi-Fi router in your home or office.

But that instant access while driving is exactly what worries safety advocates. Many argue that there are already too many in-car distractions.