The next frontier in computing has four wheels. Just as microprocessors and wireless Internet connections have turned cameras, phones, and televisions into computers (mouseless, of course), the technology is poised to transform the way we drive by putting the Internet - and all of its wondrous options and distractions - on the dashboard.
There are already products like Chrysler LLC's Uconnect that can turn the family minivan into a rolling Wi-Fi hot spot. The $499 box is a combination high-speed cellular Internet connection and wireless router that gives any nearby Wi-Fi-enabled device Web access.
With such products, passengers can surf the Web while cruising the interstate. But coming technologies promise to take car computing to the next level by tightly integrating Web information and entertainment with driving tasks - and even putting Internet-based information at the driver's fingertips.
One of the most ambitious companies is Ford Motor Co., which continues to push such applications into the mainstream with its Microsoft-based Sync system. Ford expects to have 1 million vehicles with Sync on the road this year.
A new version, which will be compatible with all Sync-equipped vehicles made since January, 2009, is set to be released this spring and will build on the current version.
The system already allows drivers to use voice commands to play music from connected MP3 players and have text messages read back to them, but the new version adds GPS navigation, traffic conditions, and information, including weather and news culled from the Internet.
The system will be standard on some models and a $395 option on others. What's innovative about the new version of Sync is that it will connect cars to the Internet without requiring drivers to pay for a special subscription or cellular data plan.
Sync also differs from standard navigation and entertainment systems in that it does not require a built-in LCD display.
It relies solely on voice recognition, eliminating the need for human operators on the other end because it sends spoken, Internet-based information back to the car. Turn-by-turn directions, for example, are read aloud.
Other companies plan more Web features for the car this year.
For example, in addition to AM, FM, satellite, and HD radio, Blaupunkt is adding yet another option. The venerable stereo company is teaming up with miRoamer to offer Internet car radio.
The new stereos will not only tune in standard AM and FM stations, but also tap into the tens of thousands of stations big and small around the world that stream music over the Web.
It is to be available in the second half of the year, priced from $300 to $400.
Audiovox, which makes car DVD and entertainment systems, is planning to extend live television feeds to the back seat.
The company is working with a subsidiary of Qualcomm that already provides live TV programming to Verizon Wireless and AT&T cellular customers.