New Technology Allows Wi-Fi in Automobiles; Worries Raised

Published February 24, 2010

Internet access via a wi-fi connection in one’s car was one of the hottest items on display at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January—but the prospect is being called a public hazard before it’s even launched as a viable product.

Ford emerged as a leader in this technology at CES, debuting its “SYNC in-car connectivity” idea, which it plans to put in some vehicles in 2011. The technology would allow anyone in the car to connect to the Web as the vehicle rolls down the road.

“Generally, we’re referring to a car turning itself into a hotspot—a mobile wireless access point,” said Tim Stevens, a contributing editor at “This is a fairly rare feature but will become more commonplace.”

Working on the Move
Chuck Holbrook, president of Columbia, Maryland-based StreetDeck LLC, an in-car technology firm, explains how such technology would work.

“For example ‘MyFord,’ which is going to be rolled out with the 2011 Ford Focus, will allow connectivity by enabling a cellular wireless modem to be connected to the car,” Holbrook said. “The car then shares that modem signal over wi-fi to any devices within range.

“The technology is about extending the Internet to devices in cars and giving you access to the same technology you have in the home, on the road,” he added. “It gives you access to the world’s information and entertainment while on the road. It results in better-working technology since connected GPS systems are always updated and can have much larger navigation databases and features like satellite imagery.

“It also will enable some new uses for technology, especially location-based technologies like reporting and receiving traffic incidents, speed traps, and new forms of communication with friends and family while on the road,” Holbrook said.

Sounding the Alarm
Nicholas Ashford, a professor of technology and policy at MIT, argued in interviews on CNBC and National Public Radio from the floor of the CES that he is in favor of banning the technology, while acknowledging doing so would reduce freedom.

“None of us like to have our freedom curtailed, but we voluntarily adhere to speed limits,” Ashford said. “We voluntarily do not drink and drive. There are two freedoms to be balanced, [including] the freedom to do anything in your automobile. There is also a freedom from harm for your passengers, for the pedestrians, and these freedoms have to be balanced.”

Troubles with a Ban
Holbrook counters by noting governments will have a hard time enforcing a ban on such technology, because it’s “impractical and impossible to enforce.” Instead, he says, in-car technology should be allowed to develop along with driver education and industry-driven guidelines on responsible use.

“There should be more industry guidelines and certifications of devices that are safe to use while driving,” Holbrook said. “Right now there is almost no guidance or regulation on in-car user interfaces.

“This is less of a wi-fi problem and more of a general ‘new technology in the vehicle’ problem,” he added. “I believe the best step for the government to take right now is to encourage development of industry standards and possibly regulate any devices made for those who are driving the car.

“Creating additional laws banning general technologies will not stop people from using that technology in the car or make the roads safer,” Holbrook said. “In many cases it may have the opposite effect and discourage industry from innovating in this space and creating technologies that will allow people to use the services they want in the car in a safe way.”

Case By Case Approach
“There’s definitely a balance between needlessly banning technology that can be a distraction, and actually protecting drivers and passengers,” Stevens said. “I think things need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and in the case of in-car wi-fi, I don’t think there’s a reason to ban it.

“It doesn’t add anything to distract the driver that they couldn’t already be doing otherwise,” he addd. “And such technology does stand to make long drives much more enjoyable for the passengers.”

Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.