From MPG to Mbps: broadband cars to hit top gear in '12

American car manufacturers may be on the brink of bankruptcy – GM is expected to file Monday – but by the time they sort themselves out, they’ll be competing on two fronts: green technology and wireless connectivity.

The latter is according to Gartner, who says that by 2012, the majority of vehicle manufacturers will “concentrate product development efforts for mature markets on enabling wireless data connectivity in more than half of their next-generation cars.”

That’s because the growth of Web 2.0-enabled devices like smartphones and mobile Internet devices “will increase consumer expectations for always-on data availability throughout their work and home, and when being mobile — including when driving”, especially in mature auto markets, says Thilo Koslowski, research vice president at Gartner.

Well, we’ve heard this before – telematics and Internet-connected cars have been on the drawing board for years – at least on the drawing boards of wireless chipset makers and device manufacturers, if not the car companies.

But this time, there may just be something to it. Never mind obvious clues like GPS apps, iPod dashboard docks and off-the-hook experiments like Oki’s pedestrian safety network trial in Okinawa.

For example, SK Telecom sees gold in the telematics market, particularly in China. At this year’s Auto Shanghai show, SKT showcased its “Mobile In Vehicle” service that supports vehicle diagnosis and control, safety and security services like tracking in case of theft, route guidance and – of course – entertainment services that allow you to sync your handset to your in-car entertainment system via W-CDMA, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. SKT plans to launch the MIV service commercially later this year.

Car-makers are also looking seriously at wireless tech. Hyundai, which recently unveiled its Equus 2 luxury sedan, is negotiating with KT to equip the car with Wimax (WiBro) connectivity at the production stage, according to Maravedis.

If nothing else, Wi-Fi is already a hot extra-install feature. In the US, Autonet Mobile – which provides Internet service for vehicles, including Cadillac's new in-car Wi-Fi offering for its CTS sport sedan – is making its wireless router available at Advance Auto Parts stores and online to help drivers turn their cars into Wi-Fi hot spots on wheels, with EV-DO providing the backhaul link.

Granted, in-car connectivity currently isn’t cheap. Autonet Mobile’s gear costs $400 with a monthly fee of $29 for 1 GB of data or $59 per month for 5 GB of data. And data caps – while understandable when EV-DO is your backhaul link – aren’t very Web 2.0

On the other hand, by 2012, wireless broadband is expected to be in enough abundance to make auto service packages affordable. And, says Gartner’s Koslowski, “The growing need for connectivity solutions in the automobile will also have a significant impact on the automotive aftermarket and will provide opportunities for those companies that can offer cost-effective retrofit solutions for vehicle owners that want to upgrade their existing cars.”

So who knows? Maybe in the next five years, car shoppers really will be asking, “Mind if I speed-test the Wi-Fi on this baby?”

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