- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

Soon your family car might need its own e-mail address or Facebook page with live Internet and live satellite television while you drive.

Our cars already receive mobile satellite signals on the road, giving us real-time traffic reports and turn-by-turn directions, including to the nearest gas station or museum, plus weather reports. And, satellite radio gives us the choice of more than 100 stations. So, live Internet and live satellite television while you drive is the next logical step.

A router - similar to the one you use at home for wireless connections - turns the car into a Wi-Fi hot spot. Just as at home, the router system allows car occupants to use laptops and Internet-enabled devices such as a BlackBerry. The 3G mobile technology can support several wireless devices at once, so one passenger can be looking at e-mail while another plays an interactive video game, Twitters or downloads music - all while the car is in motion, including inside a tunnel.

Chrysler calls its program UConnect, and introduces the system in 2009 Chrysler and Dodge minivans and Jeeps. UConnect includes satellite TV for the back seats. Sirius TV is the television version of Sirius radio, but right now it offers just three channels: Disney, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network.

When I saw the Autonet device at a consumer electronics show recently, a company executive told me about an additional great feature for traveling families. The hot spot range extends about 50 feet from the car in all directions, which means the kids can Twitter their friends or watch live TV on a laptop at grandma’s house, even if grandma doesn’t have DSL or dial-up.

And, if you park your car close enough to your hotel room, you’ll be able to avoid the $10.95 or $15.95 daily charge to hook up to the hotel’s wireless or plug-in Internet system. Some UConnect-equipped vehicles will be available for rent from Avis at major-market airports this summer. Daily cost will be $10.95.

Cadillac calls its system Cadillac WiFi, and it’s being introduced first in the popular CTS Sport Sedan. Both systems are made by Autonet Mobile (www.autonetmobile.com) and cost the same, $499 for the hardware and installation, plus a $29 monthly service charge. Cadillac WiFi is independent of GM’s industry-leading OnStar live-operator assistance program, and the WiFi service charge is on top of the monthly fee for OnStar. It’s too early in the connectivity game to predict whether GM will merge the two.

Ford also is offering Internet in 2010 models, standard on Lincoln models and a $395 option on Ford and Mercury vehicles. Ford’s version integrates with its Sync system, which you can program to have your e-mail or text messages read aloud while you’re driving. The new Sync software also can replace an expensive LCD-based navigation system.

At first glance, live Internet and satellite TV sounds like a great addition to the bundle of technology already in our vehicles. But drivers simply do not need any more distractions, and the lure of being able to surf the Web while driving will surely lead to more distraction-related accidents.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, studies show that talking on a cell phone while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk, even if the phone is a hands-free model. Motorists on cell phones were 18 percent slower in braking and took 17 percent longer to regain the speed they lost when they braked, according to another III report. My own daughter was rear-ended at a stoplight a few years ago by a driver on a cell phone.

California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah and Washington ban the use of hand-held devices while driving, and about two dozen states restrict drivers under age 18 from using any kind of personal communication device while driving, even voice-activated.

I’m picturing a passenger in the front seat, surfing happily on a laptop, and the driver glancing away from the road for a peek or several peeks. Or, worse - a driver actually surfing on a laptop placed on the empty front passenger seat.

Inattentive driving accounts for more than 6 percent of crash fatalities, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Of course, that’s not limited to cell phones. Inattentive driving includes talking, eating, applying makeup and attending to children. I wonder and worry how much that 6 percent will increase when we add the ability to use our laptops while driving. Do we really need to turn our cars into mobile Wi-Fi hot spots?

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