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Chrysler takes Wi-Fi on the road

Automaker will offer Wi-Fi and Internet connectivity in 2009 vehicles so passengers can surf the Web on the go.

Chrysler is turning cars and trucks into wireless hot spots.

The company announced Thursday a new feature that will let people purchase a "Uconnect" in-car wireless system as part of a dealer upgrade in 20 various 2009 Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep models.

The system offers Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity within the car to allow people to sync their cell phone address books with the car's 30GB hard drive or control their Apple iPods using the radio and steering wheel controls. And it provides navigation and real-time traffic features that can be controlled by voice recognition or a touch screen.

Using a cell phone network, the Wi-Fi hot spot can also be connected to the Internet, allowing passengers using laptops to surf the Web. My guess is that other Wi-Fi enabled devices, such as the iPhone and iPod Touch will also be able to use the in-car Wi-Fi to connect to the Net.

Chrysler didn't mention which cell phone network will be used to provide the Internet access. And it didn't list prices for the service, which will likely charge a monthly fee, according to an Associated Press article.

But pricing could be comparable to what is charged for the OnStar navigation and emergency roadside service. That costs between $17 and $70 per month. Or it could be priced similarly to satellite radio, which costs just under $13 per month.

Using Wi-Fi as the Internet access technology inside the car is a good idea, since almost every consumer electronic device these days has a Wi-Fi chip embedded. Wi-Fi is also shipped as a standard feature in most, if not, all laptops today. By contrast, the market for pre-installed 3G wireless in laptops has been relatively small.

I saw a similar in-car wireless system work with WiMax as part of an Intel/Motorola sponsored demonstration at CTIA in Las Vegas earlier this year. The purpose of the demo was to show how well WiMax works, but it used Wi-Fi inside the car to connect laptops and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices to the Net using WiMax.

I have to admit, turning the car into a hot spot was pretty cool. I was able to access Web sites and listen to the Web rebroadcast of National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." It was also easy to access Google Maps on the Web for navigation. And in this particular demo they showed how video could be streamed to watch movies on demand. Of course, Chrysler's system uses the 3G cell network instead of a high-speed WiMax network, so streaming audio and video won't likely work well. But it's still a very cool feature.

That said, I think price will be a major factor in whether the new feature and service are a success. As gas surpasses $4 a gallon in much of the country and the economy hits the skids, car sales are already in a slump. And if current trends continue, consumers will likely be more interested in getting better gas mileage than a potentially pricey in-car Wi-Fi system with Internet service that charges a monthly fee.