Opening up the auto to full Internet capability has been a troubling technology hurdle for carmakers. Recent advances in bandwidth have smoothed out the data flow needed to bring the Internet world to the auto. But it's not the difficulty of connecting with the Internet so much as answering the proposition of what drivers really want from their connected car that has kept automakers from making the leap.
Car companies have also had a difficult time defining what parts of the consumer Internet experience offer opportunities to them, as opposed to data service providers, network operators and content providers.
Redefining 'fast computer'
Most connected cars to date have used what's called a "walled garden" approach to outside data services, analysts said, giving strictly limited access to a few applications such as Google Search. Opening up to full Web access requires automakers to break the garden-wall mentality.
Mercedes-Benz's November announcement that on-board Internet access will be available this spring through the myComand system on its new-generation SLK and, slightly later, on the new C class shows that premium-segment automakers believe they have found the right approach to the technology.
Audi's news that it is developing its own Internet-connected Mobile Infotainment System in a joint venture, announced in a speech by CEO Rupert Stadler at the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas in January, reinforces that.
Stadler said that drivers want their car to be Internet connected, just as other devices in their lives are. "We are redefining what it means to be a fast computer," he said during his CES speech.
Analysts say carmakers will need to be careful in order to avoid missteps of a decade ago, when some European automakers, particularly Volkswagen, got too far ahead of consumers in early attempts to connect the vehicle to outside data services.
"First of all, the car doesn't really make a good personal computer, and, secondly, consumers don't have to have a PC on four wheels," said Thilo Koslowski, a San Jose, California,-based principal automotive analyst at Gartner Research. "Ultimately, any type of Internet access in the future has to support the ownership experience of the vehicle; this is not about enabling me to have the same experience I have on my laptop," he said.