Chrysler plans to put wireless Internet option in 2009 cars

Have you ever thought rush hour on the freeway might be more bearable if you could check your e-mail, shop for a book on Amazon, place some bids on eBay and maybe even, if nobody is looking, download a little porn?

Then perhaps you should be driving a Chrysler.

The United States' third-largest automaker is set to announce today that it's making wireless Internet an option on all its 2009 models. The mobile hotspot, called UConnect Web, would be the first such technology from any automaker.

Struggling Chrysler is hoping that providing access to the information superhighway to motorists will set it apart from competitors and help reverse a dismal year; through May, sales are down 19.3 percent compared with 2007, the worst dropoff in the industry.

"It's a notion of always wanting to be connected wherever you are," said Scott Slagle, Chrysler's senior manager of global marketing strategy, who has been testing the technology since last week, allowing his daughters to surf the Web from the back seat. "There's a demand for that."

Coincidentally, wi-fi-on-wheels is being unveiled just days before new hands-free legislation goes into effect in California and Washington state on July 1. Those laws, designed to reduce accidents caused by driver distraction, prohibit talking on a cellular phone without a headset or other hands-free device.

Perhaps not surprisingly, safety advocates were less than overwhelmed by Chrysler's innovation.

"Surfing the Web is something people really don't have any business doing while they drive," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. "It's definitely a distraction."

His and other safety groups contend that the only way to drive safely is without using any electronic devices, headset or no.

For its part, Chrysler says that when the car is in motion, the service is intended to be used only by passengers, not drivers. The privately held company admits, however, that there is no way to prevent a driver from driving with one hand and surfing with the other.

"We're relying on the responsibility of the consumer to follow appropriate legislation," said Keefe Leung, Chrysler's engineer for the product.

In that case, Californians tempted to Google and drive can breathe a big sigh of relief: The new laws don't proscribe use of computers or the Web, except for drivers under 18 years of age. There is a different law on the books preventing the use of television screens or video screens farther forward than the rear of the front seats, but it's unclear whether that measure applies to computers browsing the Web.

State Sen. Joe Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto who authored the California laws, is trying to clarify that situation. He's introduced new legislation prohibiting drivers from using any "mobile service device" (including computers) and text-messaging while driving.

"It's great to see technology advance," Simitian said. "But this raises a lot of concerns."

In Chrysler's defense, it's not really the first company to offer internet access in cars. Avis Rent A Car introduced Avis Connect in January of last year. Like UConnect Web, Avis Connect (which costs $10.95 per day) operates on the 3G network using a cellular-based signal.

The device used by Avis is also available through its manufacturer, Autonet Mobile, for $595 plus a $39 monthly subscription rate. Users get download speeds of 600 megabits to 800 megabits per second.

Avis spokesman John Barrows said the device, which is portable and can be used outside the car, is fairly popular, but not in as much demand as GPS units. "We emphasize that this not for use by the driver while operating the vehicle," Barrows said.

Chrysler will formally roll out the technology today at an event in Detroit spotlighting its 2009 lineup, which will appear in showrooms in September. The automaker did not disclose pricing, but said there would likely be a base charge for the option, plus a monthly or annual fee.

UConnect Web is an extension of the company's UConnect system, which provides Bluetooth connectivity for cell phones and MP3 player integration with the car stereo. Rival Ford provides similar services, without web access, in its popular Sync system.

With the added Internet connectivity, drivers and passengers will be able to get everything from laptop computers to Nintendo Wii consoles online. As to what users can download while in the car, Chrysler's Leung said anything is fair game.

"There are no limitations in content," he said.

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