Amidst the tumult of the Orange County Auto Show in Anaheim earlier this year, executives from Autonet Mobile noticed a strange phenomenon: Young car buyers — many of whom wouldn't ordinarily be caught dead in minivans — were curiously circling one of the Chrysler family vehicles on the show floor. They'd sidle up alongside, retrieve their iPhones and begin surfing. Within about five minutes, they'd invariably approach the executives.
“The strangest part of it was that we had guys coming up to us and saying, 'Wow, these minivans are really cool now,'” says Sterling Pratz, CEO of Autonet Mobile, maker of a vehicle-based Internet router being displayed on the show floor.
Cool, indeed. Suddenly, the dowdy old minivan has carved out a hip new persona, and if Autonet Mobile has much to say about it, other vehicles may soon be following.
The reason for the sudden change in the automotive cooler-than-thou hierarchy is that the Internet is moving into automobiles in a way that was only dreamed of 10 years ago. In September, Autonet Mobile's portable Wi-Fi connectivity debuted in Chrysler's UConnect Web, a vehicle-based system designed to bring wireless Internet to Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge products. Prior to that, Novatel Wireless Inc., Delphi Corp. and Avis Rent A Car announced agreements with Autonet Mobile, also revolving around the idea of delivering the Internet to the automotive world.
“This allows people in the car to stay connected, just like they are at home or in the office,” says Doug Moeller, chief technology officer for Autonet Mobile, which spent three years developing its technology. “The kids can be in the back seat, doing online gaming or going to Facebook. All the stuff they can do normally, they can now do in the car.”
Transparent to the User
Autonet Mobile's Internet-in-the-car idea began to take shape in 2005, after Moeller and Pratz spent years in satellite technology, working on the delivery of the Internet to command-center-type vehicles.
“After doing that for awhile, we saw an opportunity to build a more commercial product that could bring the Internet-to-the-vehicle concept to the masses,” Moeller says.
To keep costs down, however, they adapted their ideas to work on cellular networks, instead of on satellite technology. Early on, they envisioned a small box about the size of a home router, designed so it could work reliably as a vehicle travels between cell towers.
Their proposed technology, however, faced a significant technical hurdle. Because the Internet was designed to run over modems on the Internet Protocol Suite (commonly called TCP/IP), it made a poor partner for a cellular network technology.
“TCP is really a poor technology for wireless communications,” Moeller says. “But we were stuck with it because that's what the Internet was built on.”
The crux of Autonet's technical challenge resided in the fact that TCP uses a “send-acknowledgement” function. In send-acknowledgement, if a data packet doesn't arrive at its destination, the system re-transmits, mainly because it assumes the problem is being caused by network congestion. That creates an especially sticky problem for mobile users, who often experience interruptions due to service drop-offs.
“In the wireless world, when a packet doesn't arrive, it's not because the network is congested,” Moeller says. “It's usually because there's a temporary loss of signal. So when the other side re-transmits, the problem gets worse. Then it starts to multiply.”
To solve the problem, Autonet optimized TCP for the wireless world, but maintained its best features so it would still serve well in Internet applications. Moeller spent a year working with TCP software before developing a patented “session proxy” technique capable of simultaneously maintaining multiple TCP sessions between a user and a network. The technique enabled Autonet to resolve the “send-acknowledgement” issue and, as a result, do transparent “hand offs” as users moved from tower to tower.
Autonet Mobile engineers say the important aspect of their software is it doesn't need to be installed on laptops. Moreover, they say, the company didn't need to propose the use of new equipment in cell towers to make it all work.
“It's still TCP, as far as all the applications are concerned,” Moeller says. “We wanted this to be completely transparentto the user. Even though they're in a moving vehicle, we wanted them to feel like they're at home or in the office or at their local Starbucks.”
Automotive Internet Redux
Today, Autonet Mobile's in-car router runs its software on PowerPC-based processors from Freescale Semiconductor. The processor board includes three radios — a 1xRTT (single-carrier Radio Transmission Technology), the EVDO rev 0 (Evolution-Data-optimized) and the EVDO rev A — along with 1 Gbyte of Flash memory, two Ethernet ports, two USB ports and a CompactFlash slot. Onboard software, which runs atop an Embedded Linux operating system, handles movement between all three of the radios. It searches for available networks, enabling users to always get the best one as the vehicle speeds down the highway.
“All of the big cities have EVDO networks,” Moeller says. “But in the rural areas, you find more 1X. So as you move from urban to rural, the system does the hand off and the user never knows what has happened.”
Autonet Mobile executives say they foresee the device being connected to a variety of Wi-Fi products, ranging from laptops and notebooks to gaming consoles, music players, iPhones, GPS units and even vehicle diagnostics (Autonet Mobile claims its router improves iPhone performance). Ultimately, they see the growing demand for such devices spilling over into vehicles, especially among younger buyers and families.
“Today, there are two types of people,” says Pratz of Autonet Mobile. “There are people born before the Internet and people born after the Internet. And the people born after the Internet are starting to make car-buying decisions.”
Pratz's view on this point tracks closely with that of executives at Chrysler, who have declared that their goal is to deliver connectivity as a way of making the vehicle into the customer's “favorite room.” Chrysler engineers say the Autonet Mobile strategy also matches their own in another way: Chrysler says it doesn't want to sell phones (like GM's OnStar) or computers or gaming consoles.
“What we really want is for customers to be able to bring what they already own into the car and have it work,” says Keefe Leung, a specialist in advanced connectivity for Chrysler. “We don't see ourselves forcing them to buy additional equipment when they already have similar functionality from their devices at home. This box will manage all their own multiple devices and let all of them connect to the Internet at the same time.” That's why Chrysler announced it will work with its Mopar arm to make the Autonet Mobile box into a dealer-installed accessory, Leung says.
To be sure, not everyone in the auto industry agrees with that vision. Industry analysts warn that the telematics bubble that burst seven years ago was fueled by similar visions. Back then, forward-looking businesses such as Ford's Wingcast LLC imploded after spinning visions of drivers surfing the Internet.
“We're not seeing a lot of consumer demand for Internet access to do browsing in the car,” says Thilo Koslowski, vice president and lead automotive analyst for GartnerG2. “For most people, the vehicle is still primarily a tool that gets you from Point A to Point B. It's not a great way to connect to the Internet.”
Still, Autonet Mobile maintains a vision that includes kids playing on game consoles in the backseat, while adults make dinner reservations on Opentable.com or search for movie times on Fandango. That vision, they say, will gain traction as more Internet-savvy buyers move into the market in the next few years.
“Everybody has lots of ideas about how the Internet can be used to drive new applications,” says Moeller of Autonet Mobile. “Until now, though, there's been no reliable way of connecting to the Internet in a car. We've just provided a way for that to happen, so they can begin bringing those applications into the vehicle.”