By Todd Woody
January 9, 2008

By Michael V. Copeland

LAS VEGAS — I am not saying it’s safe or smart (and it’s probably illegal in most states), but I’ll be damned if a little driving is going to keep me from checking e-mail on my BlackBerry. And if I already have driving directions on my laptop screen, why not prop it up on the passenger seat next as a sort of ad-hoc navigation aid?

The point is, all the things we do, and all the gadgets we use as part of our work and fun, are steadily finding their way into our cars.  So far, we’ve mostly been the ones who are initiating that migration, not the automakers. People were watching movies on laptops in the back seat, and hacking their car stereos to use their iPods, long before they could get a factory-made LCD screen in a headrest or an in-dash dock for their favorite digital music player.  But based on the miles of auto tech on display at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, that’s about to change, and fast.

I’m not talking about the usual CES assortment of monster speakers, neon-lit amps and GPS units that if placed in a pile would  become their own geographic feature on a map. The new trend is the ability to bring your entire digital life  — not just music and driving directions — into your car.

Auto parts maker Delphi is showing off a device by partner Autonet Mobile, a Bay Area based startup that has developed a mobile WiFi kit for your car. Screw the base station into your trunk, connect the power, fire up the cellular-based broadband to bring in the Internet signal and your ride is bathed in WiFi.  Passengers can update their Facebook profiles, stream a YouTube video, or check restaurant reviews while on the road. Anything that can connect to WiFi will work. “It’s all about extending the Internet lifestyle into the car,” says Autonet Mobile CEO Sterling Pratz. When you are in range of your home WiFi network you can even send music or video wirelessly back to whatever is in the car.

The Autonet package will include the hardware to bring in the signal and a monthly or annual service fee for the cellular broadband service.  You can try it now for $10.95 a day at certain Avis rental locations, but the ultimate plan is to roll it out nationwide as an option in new cars. That begins in two weeks when two Bay Area car dealerships, one Volvo the other Toyota (TM),  start selling the in-car Internet gear. Pratz would not say what dealers are going to charge, only that it would be “much less than an in-car DVD system,” and the monthly fee would be at a discount to a typical $50 per month cellular broadband contract.

Pratz and his team have taken the approach that it’s far better to let people bring the gear they already have into the car. The logic is that it offers flexibility and no risk of obsolescence as long as WiFi is around.

One gadget that would be a perfect complement to Autonet, essentially an in-dash computer, hits the auto parts after-market in April. Developed by Grand Blanc, Mich.-based Azentek, the Atlas CPC 1200 amounts to a $2,800 PC cum GPS unit that fits in your car dashboard. For that price, the Atlas CPC 1200, has all the bells and whistles you can imagine. Up to 160 gigs of storage, DVD/CD drive, Bluetooth, 6.5-inch LCD touch-screen. The pricey PC, which starts shipping in April, uses an Intel Core Duo processor, and runs Windows Vista Ultimate. What it misses, however is connectivity. But since it does sport Wifi, you could bring in the signal via Autonet and boom, have your e-mail and you buddy list up while you drive.

Microsoft was making noise this year at CES with its Sync partnership with Ford (F).  And while slick in execution, the Sync technology, which will be an option on every Ford 2009 model, it mostly offers voice-activated cell-phone calling and music. One cool feature is the ability to have incoming text messages read aloud by the computer. But if it can do that, surely audio e-mail wouldn’t be too much of a technical hurdle. Give me that, and I’ll bet not only would Sync be a hit, but the roads would be far safer without all the BlackBerry reading drivers out there  — myself included.

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