Wi-Fi In Cars -- The More Practical Version
By Mike Masnick, Fri Jun 25 04:45:00 GMT 2004

Ford is testing a new Lincoln Navigator with built in Wi-Fi -- but only for uploading MP3s to the vehicle. Nothing fancy, but it could be the way Wi-Fi quietly moves into the car.

Grand technology plans often have a way of failing miserably. Someone comes up with a big idea based on new technologies that requires a massive new design and re-thinking of the ways things are done. The problem is that it's nearly impossible to factor in all the different variables, or to understand how end-users will really end up using the technology. There are hundreds of stories of such massive overhaul projects that cost millions, but never succeed.

Instead, sometimes the most useful technologies have a way of "sneaking" their way into the market. They're designed for one small thing, but people figure out ways to use them for much, much more. In that way, the technology grows in a more organic way. The initial expense isn't great, and while the functionality may not be a major shift, the small steps amount to a true breakthrough.

Automakers are looking into the wireless space these days, and are trying to figure out what role Wi-Fi plays in a vehicle. At first, it might not make much sense to put Wi-Fi in an automobile, because it doesn't seem to have much purpose without a backhaul connection. That leads to convoluted plans to use a cellular connection as backhaul to an access point in the trunk, which may not make much sense. Ford, however, is taking a much simpler approach. Working in tandem with automotive components company Delphi, Ford is showing off a Lincoln Navigator with a Wi-Fi antenna in the dash connected to a special audio system that includes a "synchronization" button.

If the SUV is within range of a computer running some special software on a local wireless network, pressing the button will send songs from the computer directly to the SUV's stereo system. The most obvious place to use this is in the garage at home as a simple way to transfer songs from your home computer to your car. A company named Rockford already makes a similar aftermarket Wi-Fi/MP3 sound system for automobiles, but Ford is excited about bringing this particular solution to market as quickly as possible -- which could really jumpstart the market. They say it only costs an extra $150 to $200, and they hope to put it in production vehicles within a year.

Everyone involved admits that this same Wi-Fi can be used for many other applications as well, but by focusing on one simple, easy to understand application, Ford can more easily make the case to get the technology into vehicles today. From there, automakers can see what car owners actually do with it, and figure out ways to expand the applications in a bottom-up manner, rather than as a huge process that tries to create a complete in-vehicle Wi-Fi solution at once.