Technology

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from the L.A. Times

Information superhighway: Chrysler to turn 2009 vehicles into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots

Chrysler's 2009 Dodge Challenger will have Wi-Fi option

UPDATE JUNE 25: Here's a more detailed version of this story that ran in today's paper.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said the service would offer wireless Internet at speeds of 600 to 800 megabits per second. In fact, it's 600 to 800 kilobits per second.

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Is there anything more frustrating than being stuck on the 405, unable to illegally download the new Coldplay album and put it on your iPod? Or surf the Web from the passenger seat?

Chrysler feels your pain. The littlest of the Big Three will soon be putting wireless routers in its vehicles -– turning its cars, trucks and SUVs into roaming Wi-Fi hotspots.

Wifi_icon The UConnect Web service will be available as an option on all its 2009 model year vehicles (including the Dodge Challenger pictured above), which hit dealerships in September. The Detroit car maker has not yet disclosed pricing, but said there would likely be some type of subscription fee attached, be it monthly or yearly, as well as an initial cost for the option.

Chrysler plans to formally announce the news Thursday, just days before California’s new hands-free driving legislation goes into effect, but Wired and ITWire got the jump on it. The service would appear to be a huge victory for that critical lobby of people bored with merely texting, scrolling through iPod playlists and chatting on the phone.

Highway safety advocates, on the other hand, are a little less enthusiastic.

"Stop already!" said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit funded by insurance companies that researches the causes of accidents. “Clearly this is a problem. Our cars are becoming just another place to catch up on calls and now e-mail, and that’s a real safety problem.”

For its part, Chrysler says that the service is intended to be used while in motion only by passengers, not drivers, who should use it only when parked. The car maker admits, however, that ...

... there is no way to prevent the driver from surfing and driving simultaneously.  “We’re relying on the responsibility of the consumer to follow appropriate legislation,” said Keefe Leung, Chrysler’s engineer for the product.

In that case, California drivers can breathe a sigh of relief: The law going into effect on July 1 doesn’t proscribe use of computers or the Web at all, except for drivers 18 years of age or younger (there is a bill in the state Senate that would make computer use illegal, however).

The UConnect Web device, which will be hidden within the car, will work only with the key in the ignition to help ward off piggybacking on the signal. It will operate on the 3G network using a cellular-based signal, Leung says, and will allow download speeds between 600 and 800 kilobits per second, with upload speeds of 200 kbps.

Chrysler is introducing the device as a new feature in its UConnect system, which provides Bluetooth connectivity and MP3 player integration with the car’s stereo, similar to rival Ford’s Sync. The Web connectivity, however, ratchets things up a notch.

Asked why such a device is necessary, Scott Slagle, senior manager for global marketing strategy at Chrysler, said: “I just think there’s this whole thing of the super-connected society. It’s a nation of always wanting to be connected, wherever you are. There’s a demand for that.”

As a fun added feature, Chrysler said UConnect Web would allow passengers in Chrysler vehicles with TV monitors –- such as minivans –- to hook up Net-connected video game consoles including the Nintendo Wii. Whee!

-- Ken Bensinger

Bensinger, a Times staff writer, covers the auto industry.

Photo: 2009 Dodge Challenger courtesy of Chrysler. Wi-Fi icon courtesy of Dana Spiegel via Flickr

 
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