Chrysler’s WiFi

It’s here.

Chrysler is offering all sorts of Internet connectivity on its 2009 models as they make the entire automobile a hot spot.

The car, once safe haven for you and your radio, will soon become so much more.

I remember Mel Karmazin when he did the keynote at one of my Inside Radio Management Conferences waxing eloquent about the virtues of radio over cell phones – from a safety standpoint.

Mel was correct.

There is something different about talking on the phone and conversing with someone in the car while driving. Even hands-free laws are of little use it turns out. Drivers are literally driven to distraction when they have cell phone capability.

The New York Times did a scary article Sunday warning about the negative effects of WiFi in the car. Two studies – one Canadian -- reported in The New England Journal of Medicine and a separate Australian study examined cell phone records of people injured in car crashes. According to the article, “Both studies concluded that when drivers were talking on phones, they were four times as likely to get into serious crashes.” The author, Randall Stross, was quick to point out that we won’t be seeing any studies done here in the U.S. very soon as cell phone carriers refuse to provide such records to researchers. I wonder why?

Personally, my wife and I were on our way to Phoenix Sky Harbor for our weekly trip to Los Angeles a few years back when a young gal on her cell phone and driving struck and hit our SUV at an intersection where I had had the right of way for at least 30 seconds. Outside of remembering her with blood dripping down her face (and her phone still held to her ear), it was all I needed to wake up and take note.

But potential death by auto is one fatality.

Death to radio by auto with WiFi is another.

Radio broadcasters fear mobile WiFi because it could kill them off. Kids not listening to radio but online or watching video on laptops.

Yes, Chrysler’s WiFi indeed makes the entire car a hot spot. No need to have any conversations with your children. No more games on long trips. They won’t have the fun of identifying as many license plates from various states when the family travels together.

In fact, backseat video is already here with DVDs and satellite operators offering content.

Now, anyone in a UConnect car can surf the web -- even the driver -- and don't think that's not going to happen.

You often hear me talk about the sociological aspects of technology which is why I got into this subject. The fact is that WiFi alone doesn’t guarantee Internet operators anything. In fact, for them and for their traditional media competitors, I recommend they go back to the drawing board and rethink what auto hot spots can mean to the audience beyond the obvious.

I think WiFi is a game changer.

It will allow consumers to access everything they like from the Internet in the car. That includes video. It also includes email and surfing the Internet. Never mind that many lives may be lost going forward from distracted drivers – the mobile Internet is here and is not going to go away.

What would Steve Jobs do? (Sorry to invoke the name of the Lord).

No one knows for sure, but could we assume that whatever he did would be intuitive so that it is easier (and perhaps) safer to access audio, video and text?

I'm just guessing now.

Do you think Jobs would make interactivity easier – a click, perhaps – so you can contact the person you are watching or listening to with little or no effort?

Would he develop a new kind of auto-Google or do a partnership with the search engine giant so that finding what you want is easier yet?

Remember, the road ahead is full of even more distractions -- both for drivers and media companies.

Perhaps you’ve joined me in cursing out someone who veered into your lane while they were attempting to text someone. Or perhaps they cursed you when you did it -- come on, fess up. My young students sheepishly admitted that all of them – all – text while driving. I believe it.

What a great opportunity for radio.

I love my technology as much as you do, but I think that a technology Armageddon is coming some day in the next five to ten years. We are turning ourselves into prisoners of the very things that could make our lives better because we are unwilling or unable to be disciplined in their use.

In other words, just the ability to interact may not be enough some day. Today, it is. In fact, society -- in my view -- has bent itself out of shape to utilize all the new technological opportunities that we have.

Would you be surprised to know that many young people tell me that they leave their iPods at home -- on purpose -- and that others wish they could text less and have more time for other things. But make no mistake about it, they -- like us -- are not ready to disconnect.

Forget students, look at the idiots who push their way down the jetway bumping into everyone trying to get on the plane. That would be everyone with a Blackberry. How is it that they must scroll through all their Viagra junk mail while getting on a plane. I know. They’ve got legitimate business.

It’s the balance that is missing.

I confess. During my recent blast from the past at the Jersey beaches, I whipped out my iPhone constantly to check and answer emails. Could I be that important? We both know the answer to that. All of us are submitting to the technological crack that is provided by connectivity.

Not that this would ever happen at a terrestrial station in the era of consolidation, but I’d encourage one-day seminars on the sociology of technology (radio, mobile phones and WiFi in cars). When you get so many smart radio people together focusing on understanding the end user – for better or for worse – it can be very important.

It’s the difference between jumping on the WiFi bandwagon with what you think the perceived benefit will be and getting it right from the beginning -- offering content that cooperates with the inevitable.

Auto WiFi is in its infancy and the radio industry which still doesn't have a workable strategy for the Internet is surely not ready for the one thing that may single-handedly cut out the home field advantage in the cars.

So I'm putting it out there.

Learn from past mistakes.

Understand what WiFi means to consumers -- not to your business -- and come up with a game plan.

What a novel idea for an industry that has done it half assed backwards for the past 12 years.

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