Keep Your Eyes on the Road, Fool

Despite safety worries, in-car Internet is ultimately a good thing.

Rick Munarriz
Rick Munarriz
Aug 25, 2008 at 12:00AM

The new 2009 Chrysler cars with UConnect Wi-Fi routers are rolling off the assembly line. So are the attacks against them.

The New York Times ripped into the safety concerns of UConnect over the weekend, in an aptly titled "Caution: Driver May Be Surfing the Web" entry in its Digital Domain column. Randall Stross envisions the potential pileups that may occur if drivers spend too much time perusing Web-based content and too little paying attention to traffic.

"Bad idea," he writes. "As drivers, we have done poorly resisting the temptation to move our eyes away from the road to check e-mail or send text messages with our cellphones. Now add laptops."

I don't buy it. Advances in technology and connectivity don't happen in a vacuum. UConnect, and the various incarnations of automotive Web access that will indubitably follow, will create new means and opportunities to enhance the car-riding experience.

Temptations to lose focus are already abundant. Even voice-activated GPS systems need to be programmed, with the occasional looksie along the way. Terrestrial radio has been replaced by satellite radio, with hundreds of options. Name me one satellite radio owner who's resisted the urge to check the info button to identify a new song.

Drivers surfing on their laptops are nothing new. I remember streaming cable channels into my car two years ago, via my Slingbox and wireless laptop card. (I wasn't driving at the time, of course -- I was just at a tailgate party.) Now that wireless cards are ubiquitous, is a costlier car-based router really any more dangerous than the present tools of distraction?

Who's afraid of the big bad Web?
The allure of having a router in your car doesn't involve multitasking drivers. Instead, it's about enhancing passengers' existing entertainment and information options.

Remember when KVH put out the TracVision A7 two years ago, allowing car owners to receive DirecTV (NYSE:DTV) programming? It became mostly an RV luxury, since few of us were willing to fork over nearly $3,000 plus the monthly subscription fees. Sirius XM Radio (NASDAQ:SIRI) rolled out the more price-friendly BackseatTV appliance last year, but it's limited to just three kid-centric channels.

The proliferation of in-car Wi-Fi will also inspire devices that stream Internet music channels, download podcasts, and provide discounted traffic and mapping services. These growing choices will be natural threats to radio operators, GPS makers like Garmin (NASDAQ:GRMN), concierge assistance like General Motors' (NYSE:GM) OnStar, and even auto-tracking specialists like LoJack (NASDAQ:LOJN).

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Radio will also take a hit below the belt. The day someone comes up with a Web app that can download local weather, traffic, and your favorite podcasts to your car's hard drive as you get ready for the morning commute, what will become of radio? Even free Internet radio and music-discovery sites like Pandora, Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) AOL, and CBS' (NYSE:CBS), which should embrace this technology as a great way to reach new audiences, may find that it's hugging them back a bit too tightly. Too many companies will be chasing too few eardrums.

Pump up the volume on the future
The future will be a pretty neat place. The day when "are we there yet?" is replaced by "do we have to leave the car?" is coming.

Columnists like Stross will hit the usual hot buttons, raising the specter of distraction-induced traffic accidents, but who will sing the praises of UConnect as a way to make driving more enjoyable, enlightening, and potentially safer?

You think thieves will want to carjack a set of wheels with a router? In one case here in Florida earlier this year, police caught a murder suspect by tracking the victim's iPhone, which the suspect pocketed.

Web connectivity does open an Orwellian can of worms when one begins to ponder that webcams and audio recording can also be streamed live via the Internet. Still, critics traditionally decry most new technologies before embracing the benefits, and the concerns brewing about UConnect will likely prove no different.

And won't the irony be downright delicious when, a few years from now, the same folks who blasted this technology re-read their old online polemics from the comfort of their cars?

... In the passenger seats, of course.

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