Cars can surf, cars will surf

Nobody considers the car a serious computing platform. At least not yet. Erick Shonfeld tells auto makers to use a little imagination--like a heads-up display on the windshield.

COMMENTARY--If there's one place the Net has yet to catch on, it's the auto industry. You can get online from your Palm, from your mobile phone, even from your television, but for the most part, you still can't connect your car to the Web. As Robert Duvall might say: "Cars don't surf!"

But cars can surf. They should surf. And, dammit, they will surf! Picture it--your email gets read to you by a pleasant, computer-generated voice as you cruise down the freeway. Or better yet, you access your address book from behind the wheel, speak a name, and get directions to that person's office, along with a map linked to a GPS device.

There are literally hundreds of information services that it would make sense to deliver to people in their cars: navigation, communication, entertainment, diagnostic, maintenance, and location-based services, to name just a few. All that is lacking are car-based computers, a way to connect those computers to the Internet, and a little imagination.

Granted, those are legitimate technological hurdles, and expensive problems to solve. But there's a reason car companies would want to invest in transforming their products into new computing platforms--specifically, it could help them create better and longer-lasting relationships with their customers.

For example, a simple service could run regular diagnostics on the car remotely. Today a mechanic can hook your car up to a computer and check on the dozens of embedded microchips already packed into it, but that program could just as easily run on a remote server.

Car manufacturers could also give each new car owner a personal Web page to show maintenance and repair stats, such as the date of the last oil change and the miles traveled since then. That personalWeb page could also be filled with resources for planning trips. If there were a GPS chip in the car, you could keep maps of where you've been and plan better routes (or find out where the car is if it has been stolen).

What's more, it could alert the car owner to problems uncovered by the diagnostic software and even send messages to the owner via email, pager, or automated voice. This sort of intelligence would help customers take better care of their vehicles and prevent expensive repairs.

Down the road, as car companies come up with new algorithms to make different parts of the car run better, these could be offered as software upgrades to the vehicle, purchased and installed online.

Rev up Web applications
Beyond mere maintenance, though, other applications could work too. The dream of every Web company, from AOL Time Warner to Microsoft to Yahoo, is to deliver information to consumers regardless of where they are or what device they're using. If Web-based information can be sent to PCs, cell phones, Palms, BlackBerry pagers, and TVs, it can obviously also be sent to cars.

At first, the Web connection might be intermittent, just as you currently have to sync your Palm to your PC every night. Perhaps you could have a wireless Bluetooth device in the garage that communicates with your car's computer whenever it's parked there. Eventually, as cell-phone networks are able to carry more data, cars could connect wirelessly from the road. But such maintenance applications would be just the start.

The information that people would realistically want in their cars comes in two main types: personal data that they'd need access to at all times (email, instant messages, calendars, address books), and data that would make the driving experience easier or more pleasant (mapping, location-specific info, digital music). Ideally the lines between these two types of data will be fuzzy--as in, say, looking up that client in your address book and then getting a map to his office, or joining a voice instant-messaging buddy list for people who want traffic updates about a particular stretch of road. You should also be able to download your entire digital music collection to your car, perhaps via that Bluetooth connection while parked in the garage.

Ultimately, you'd want to be able to access your personal digital jukebox through some wireless broadband link. (What good are wheels without your tunes?) And car-based Web technology would also open up new marketing options. For example, a driver tells the computer she is hungry; it searches the Web for offers from nearby restaurants and gives her some options mixed in with a wider search through Zagats.com.

Before all this can become a reality, of course, a lot of design issues would have to be thought through. For one thing, manufacturers would need to come up with a safe, convenient display and the interface technology to let people use it.

Hands-free voice interfaces are probably the least likely to cause accidents, but right now those systems can be clunky and limited. Small GPS-navigation-type screens mounted by the dashboard might also work.

But my vote would be for heads-up displays on the windshield itself (similar to those used in jet fighters). Heads-up displays will eventually become cheap enough to be feasible, at least in luxury vehicles.

One thing's for sure. Webifying the car would certainly give a whole new meaning to the term "mobile computing".

As an editor at large for Business 2.0, Erick Schonfeld contributes to the editorial development of the magazine, writes feature stories, and pens a weekly online column (called "Future Boy"). Schonfeld is also a contributing editor for Fortune, where he has written about technology and investing for the past seven years.

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