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Electronics

The Automobile As Network Node

In-vehicle Internet.

In-vehicle Internet. It sounds like something you'd find while walking the aisles at the SEMA show, not an option you can order from your Chrysler dealer under the "uconnect web" name. Yet, that is exactly what it is, an approximately $535 option ($499 for the router, $35-$50 for installation, and a one-time activation fee of $35) that runs over 3G and 2.5G cellular data networks, and provides high-speed Internet access at data rates ranging from 400-800 Kilobytes per second. San Francisco-based Autonet Mobile (www.autonetmobile.com) provides both the router and the $29-per-month Internet account service, and guarantees the device will provide a "hot spot" connection with a 50-100-ft range around the vehicle. "Eventually," says Autonet Mobile CEO Sterling Pratz, "the router could be used to run all infotainment elements in the vehicle," he says.

The router measures 7-in. x 7-in. x ¾-in., so it is small enough to package in a trunk, cargo area, or under a seat. Over a four-month period, Chrysler and Autonet Mobile put the unit through full EMI compatibility testing-to make certain it wouldn't interfere with tire pressure monitoring systems, remote key fobs, or other electronics within the vehicle-and ruggedized the unit so that it could survive in the automotive environment. That, however, was the easy part. Says Pratz: "We discovered quite quickly that it is harder than you might imagine to hookup a car to the Internet, especially if you are after a secure high-quality connection at a low cost." Thus, not only did this require a router designed for automotive use, it demanded a network designed specifically for automobiles.

According to Pratz, the problem required that they look at the car four dimensionally because there were four issues to deal with: 1) Dropping the connection as cars move between cellular towers, 2) Handing off the vehicle as it travels between high- and low-speed networks, 3) Managing load issues as multiple cars move within the same infrastructure, and 4) Handling data from multiple simultaneously connected users. "Just the proximity of multiple users within the vehicle can cause packet collisions," says Pratz. "So we worked with Novotel to create a technology to manage the load." Unlike non-cellular connections, there are no broadband radio servers to sit on the edge of the network to balance the load and make certain that what doesn't have to go out over the Internet stays on the network. "We created a software version of a broadband radio server and put it in each router box so that all vehicles equipped with our system are capable of load balancing," says Pratz. He claims that a typical cellular card "pings" the network constantly, looking either for a connection or a higher quality signal, and this activity eats up spectrum that could be used for moving data. The Autonet Mobile unit, on the other hand, relies on the software and only triggers a response when a pre-set threshold is reached. "That allows us to keep our network leaner, significantly reduce the cost of network delivery, and reduces network overhead by 30%," declares Pratz.

With a secure two-way connection (the system's WiFi connection is secured with WEP encryption, MAC address or WAN port restriction and, claims Pratz, is safe enough to do banking over), Autonet Mobile can be notified via the router if there are technology issues, and download software updates directly to the vehicle. This facility has other uses, as well. Pratz says the next step is to add the vehicle to a home network. "At that point," he says, "it's not just a vehicle. It's the ultimate consumer electronics product." As such, it will not only allow customers to download music, games, directions, etc. onto the router from their home PC, but it will receive brand-specific programming and features from OEMs, dealers, and accredited third-party suppliers. "Not only is there a ton of money to be made in online games," says Pratz, "we have discovered a trend where kids who are on the Internet in the car go to car sites and build vehicles. Imagine the possibilities available for automakers who reach out to those future customers by combining those two trends."