It was inevitable: Cars are getting high-speed Internet access and turning into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.
It's great for impatient backseat passengers and drivers who want the latest navigation information on summer trips, but could Web access someday open up the family minivan to hackers?
Autonet Mobile recently announced that Volkswagen dealers would offer its "uconnect web" Internet package in its vehicles. Autonet's $514 option includes a Wi-Fi router that can be hidden in a trunk or under a seat.
The router connects to the Internet using Verizon's high-speed cellular data network and then shares the connection with any Wi-Fi device in or near the car.
Monthly Internet access costs $29, delivering speeds from 800 Kbps to 1.2 Mbps, similar to home DSL service.
"We want to become the ISP or the network for cars," explains Sterling Pratz, CEO of Autonet Mobile.
Pratz says that consumers are finally catching on to the idea of Web access in their vehicles and now value it more than other forms of mobile entertainment.
"We've done surveys asking customers whether they want DVD players or Internet access, and 9 out of 10 tell us they want the Internet," claims Pratz.
Many consumers apparently now expect and want Internet-based services even when they're behind the wheel. Internet radio is one attraction, with thousands of stations available online, in addition to music services like Pandora.
With uconnect, kids bored with the bag of DVDs in the back seat can also cruise through videos on YouTube or Hulu using an iPod Touch or laptop computer. Gamers can connect online with a Sony PSP or Nintendo DSi. Teens can even post pictures to Facebook as they roll down the highway.
These services are destined to grow. Similar rolling Internet systems are already available from Autonet in Chrysler vehicles under the uconnect brand and some Cadillac models. The Cadillac version uses a Wi-Fi router that also can be moved from vehicle to vehicle when needed.
Furthermore, Ford upgraded its Microsoft-based Sync system this spring so that it can get Internet-based information such as driving directions and local news and sports. The $395 option is available on nearly all Ford vehicles, but it uses a driver's cell phone to connect to the Net, so you can't surf for old music videos on YouTube with it.
Currently, these two-way connections between cars and the Web are restricted to navigation and entertainment systems, but companies acknowledge that they are looking toward a future in which, say, an SUV or sports car's computer-controlled transmission could be upgraded over the Internet.
In other words, such Web controls may extend to critical vehicle systems.
"It may not be long until we are treating cars like laptops," admits Autonet's Pratz, "downloading the latest software directly to the customer's car or fixing bugs without having to visit the dealership."
Such convenience may sound attractive — especially since dealerships are now fewer and farther between — but it raises the issue of security and safety, something that can be in short supply on the World Wide Web.
At Hughes Telematics, which is working on applications that would allow drivers to remotely start a car using an iPhone, for example, Thomas Taylor, vice president of engineering development, acknowledges that security issues will have to be resolved before such Internet tricks become commonplace.
Without careful safeguards a determined hacker could conceivably conduct virtual carjackings over the Internet, disabling a vehicle or unlocking it online.
"On the other hand, cars with video cameras for blind-spot detection could be used to take pictures of thieves and send them back over the Internet," notes Taylor.
In other words, such two-way Web connections could eventually make annoying car alarms obsolete. Now that's what we call progress.