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Automakers turn to Wi-Fi on wheels

Have you heard about this Internet thing? Man, it’s just not going away. Even the automakers are hip to it.

Have you heard about this Internet thing? Man, it’s just not going away. Even the automakers are hip to it.

Seems every concept car we see now showcases some kind of futuristic entertainment system complete with flat screens galore and total Internet and satellite connectivity.

And these systems are usually integrated into in a spaceship-like interior layout, where each passenger has their own “station.”

Is this where we headed? Down a path where interaction with the outside virtual world is enabled and encouraged, and interaction with the other people in the car is gradually being branded as “so last century?”

Maritz Research conducts consumer feedback studies and clinics for many major firms. The company’s VP, Chris Travell, told me that about four years ago, Maritz was engaged by a luxury automotive brand to ask its customers and potential customers which features they would like to see in those vehicles.

“It wasn’t a huge surprise to us, I guess, but they articulated it very precisely. And it wasn’t just one or two customers. It was a major theme that came out of that fairly large clinic — they were looking for Internet access in the vehicle.”

Travell estimates that it will take “about three to five years” before we see Internet connectivity become a common feature in vehicles.

At the recent Chicago auto show, Volvo showed a one-off 2010 XC70 with something the automaker billed as “the industry’s first rear entertainment system (RES) with Windows XP, Wi-Fi, and a 500G hard drive.”

Volvo said it created the RES to gauge consumer reaction and to demonstrate what Internet connectivity could mean for backseat entertainment.

The system looks virtually similar to Volvo’s current RES, but with touch-screen navigation, and that all-important Wi-Fi connection.

The system obviously allows you to surf the Internet, email, and to connect to a home computer, to access to its stash of music, movies and games.

But if you don’t have a stash of such stuff, Volvo and its content partner, Gracenote, have got you covered, and then some. Back-seat passengers can browse and download as much music, videos and games as they desire (and you’re willing to pay for).

You can also watch Mobile TV, navigate music collections “by mood,” and choose a celebrity voice to interact with you during your musical experience, among other things

To me all this sounds somewhat decadent, but also inevitable. The only possible conclusion to being connected is that everything must, at some point, be connected with everything. It wouldn’t surprise me, for example, to learn that Stanfield’s is working on Wi-Fi socks.

– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for more than 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.

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