Turn Your Car Into Your Computer Mobile warriors rejoice; Wi-Fi has reached your vehicle. Just don't surf while driving.

By Geoff Williams

Not that anyone needs more proof that we've left the 20th Century in the dust, but our cars are becoming indistinguishable from our laptops.

Texting and driving still ranks as a stupid strategy, right up there with the idea for New Coke, but it is increasingly becoming very possible to be safely connected to the internet while behind the wheel, provided you do all the necessary clicking and typing before you press your foot on the gas.

After all, you can listen to podcasts while driving, or listen to a favorite show on a video site like Hulu.com (but actually watching the show while driving = bad idea). You could theoretically talk on the phone--through Skype--while making your way to and from the office to your home. And there are probably numerous other ways you could use the internet while driving.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is way too complicated, and what's wrong with the radio, anyway? Nevertheless, Chris Rauser, accessories manager for Chevrolet, points out, "If you carpool, you could have several people checking their email on their laptops, turning your car into a mobile office." Rauser has been eagerly talking up his company's new Chevrolet Wi-Fi by Autonet Mobile, which recently debuted in some Chevrolet models as well as Buick, Cadillac and GMC vehicles.

Rauser adds that because Chevrolet's modem reach is 150 feet, salespeople on call may find it easier to show prospective clients their wares--they can take their own laptop into a client's home, using their car's modem to connect.

If you're thinking of turning your BMW or VW into a PC, or your Cadillac into a Mac, here are a few of the options available to you:

  • Chevrolet Wi-Fi by Autonet Mobile: As noted, this just hit the market. It works with Macs, laptops, PSPs, PDAs, iPhones, iPod Touches and probably anything else you can access the internet from. Once it's installed in the car, you just use your computer as you would at any other Wi-Fi hotspot. The actual device costs $199 (provided you sign up for a two-year plan and probably other details, so check the fine print) and costs between $29 and $59 a month, depending on whether you go with their 1 GB or 5 GB data plan. More information can be found at the Autonet Mobile website.
  • Volkswagen's uConnect by Autonet Mobile: Yes, Autonet Mobile's apparently everywhere. Earlier this summer, they partnered with Volkswagen, equipping their minivan, the Routan, with internet service. Pretty much everything you read in the preceding paragraph applies here. For more information, check out Volkswagen's press releaseon their car connectivity.
  • Ford Work Solutions: So far, this is just available in trucks--though I imagine cars will be coming down the road soon--and Ford is marketing it heavily to business owners, not to mention farmers, contractors and construction workers. Unlike the Chevrolet Wi-Fi system, with this, you actually buy a computer that goes with your Ford. The computer is $1,125, and the monthly plan is $25 a month for 25 MB or $50 for up to 5 GB of data. The computer includes Garmin GPS navigation, an AM/FM radio and a CD player, has a 6.5" screen and comes with a wireless Bluetooth keyboard, and if you want, you can buy a wireless Hewlett-Packard printer. Some professionals may not like the fact that--for safety reasons--you can only access your computer and the internet when the vehicle is parked. A little harder to grasp is why you can't stream the internet's audio or video, even when you're parked. But otherwise, it's a very cool setup. For more information, check out Ford Work Solutions.

The road ahead seems to indicate this isn't a passing trend. In 2011, the Audi 8 will be connected, allowing you to stream video and music and whatever else you want while you're zipping down the freeway, according to the blog Technology for the Soul. And recently the technological giant Alcatel-Lucent debuted its ng Connect program, which is working to bring dependable internet access to automobiles, with a promise on their web site that offers a glimpse of this technology's future. "Soon the must-have option for new cars won't be a sunroof or leather seats--it will be ultra high-speed, high-bandwidth connectivity," the ng Connect web site promises, assuring all of us: "Your car will be connected."

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Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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