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Default Chrysler Brings 'Infobahn' to Autobahn

Chrysler wants to turn your car into a rolling WiFi hotspot where you check your Facebook profile, upload pictures to Flickr, and eventually be part of a nationwide traffic-control network.
The UConnect Web system Chrysler will unveil Thursday -- and introduce next year -- marks the start of the dot-car era and puts Chrysler in front of BMW in their race to bring wireless internet access to your dashboard. Most of the other automakers, not to mention Microsoft, are right behind them, and there's a push to bring some standards to the hardware.
"It's something everyone's looking at," says Aaron Bragman, an auto-industry analyst at Global Insight. The rush is fueled by the runaway success of Sync, Ford's hands-free iPod and cellphone system. "It's very popular, and it drives a lot of sales," Bragman says.
Sales are something Chrysler desperately needs, and it hopes that filling its cars with gadgets will lure buyers. Among the toys it's showing off next week are rear-seat swivel screens, blind-spot cameras and something it calls "rear cross-path sensing."
But UConnect Web is the star of the show, and Chrysler's betting on it to make its cars appealing to millennials — the twenty-something buyers who've made Sync so successful. The company clearly wants to gain a reputation for high-tech cars.
"In today's market, Chrysler's mission is to bring innovation to market more quickly," Chrysler Vice President Frank Klegon says.
Chrysler says UConnect Web uses cellular and WiFi technology to provide "instant access" to the internet. Anyone in the car will be able to check e-mail, download music, play games and even upload photos from an SD card directly to Flickr. Chrysler says any wireless device and "all major gaming systems" will work with UConnect.
It remains to be seen which models will get UConnect and what it will cost. Chrysler says it will be competitive with laptop wireless cards, and customers won't be tied to long contracts.
It also remains to be seen what regulators might have to say about all those added distractions -- "How long before California bans it?" asks Bragman -- and whether consumers want them. Although car buyers love hands-free systems like Sync, nothing suggests they want to surf the web behind the wheel.
"There could be some opportunity there, but we constantly see that internet access in the car is pretty much at the end of the priorities for consumers," says Thilo Koslowki, an IT analyst with the tech research firm Gartner. "The car is not being seen as an internet-browsing platform."
Koslowski says automakers are "leapfrogging consumer demand" and should focus on making their cars compatible with iPhones, BlackBerrys and other devices. "I don't think the industry is looking at it from that perspective," he says. "Right now most of the emphasis is on replicating what you do at home on your desktop or laptop."
But the drive to bring connectivity to cars is about more than Twittering from the road, and the dot-car era won't get rolling until the Intelligent Transportation Systems is sorted out, says Egil Juliussen at Telematics Research Group. The idea -- which has been promised for years -- is to have cars communicate wirelessly with each other and with the road to increase safety, relieve congestion and manage traffic. Among other things, such a system would allow cars to track everything around them and respond accordingly to avoid collisions. It could also provide real-time traffic information -- so drivers could avoid backups -- and create a national system for paying tolls electronically.


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