Number of cars with built-in Wi-Fi to jump 40-fold

23 Nov 2010

The number of cars in the world today that have built-in Wi-Fi connectivity are set to jump from just 174,000 in 2010 to some 7.2 million by 2017, according to iSuppli. Car manufacturers will increasingly view IT and connectivity as competitive differentiators.

“Wi-Fi in the car is a hot topic these days, with major OEMs noticeably incorporating it into new-model releases,” said Stacey Oh, analyst and regional manager for Asia automotive research at iSuppli.

“Whereas Wi-Fi was an aftermarket accessory in the past, OEMs now are touting it as a key offering.”

For Ford Motor Co., the company is turning its vehicles into Wi-Fi hot spots with the next generation of its Sync in-car connectivity system. MyFord is able to incorporate in-car Wi-Fi connectivity, powered by any customer’s existing USB mobile broadband modem. The solution inherently reduces cost for the consumer and the OEM, while requiring less space in the vehicle for a modem.

Furthermore, the system is also able to integrate WLAN from a local hot spot and utilise it for downloads into the vehicle, which could in the future include anything from map updates to software patches and vehicle dynamics revisions.

Via SIM card

Meanwhile, European OEMs are taking a different route. Marvell Technology and Harman Automotive in August announced integrated Wi-Fi connectivity via Marvell Mobile Hotspot (MMH) technology, with the 2010 Audi A8 as the first vehicle on the market to feature the factory-installed mobile hot spot.

Together, Marvell and Harman Automotive have integrated MMH technology into the Audi vehicle through a built-in WLAN module, enabling high-speed online and internet access via cellular link or Bluetooth devices. Implementing a full-featured, WLAN access point integrated entirely on the wireless chip, the MMH technology is incorporated into Harman’s connectivity system and has a local Wi-Fi mobile hot spot within the vehicle, giving passengers access to web-based services.

Up to eight devices can be supported, from smartphones, to tablets, to other advanced mobile devices. To activate web access, the user has to insert a SIM card — usually a duplicate — so users receive one bill, into the SIM slot, which is part of the optional Bluetooth Auto Telephone.

Marvell’s Wi-Fi software architecture, on the other hand, is optimised for low electricity consumption on battery-powered consumer electronics, enabling passengers to connect to the vehicle’s network without affecting the battery life of their connected devices.

A competitive advantage

“Wi-Fi gives OEMs a competitive advantage,” Oh observed. “Staying connected is important to users and can improve the overall in-vehicle experience. And as Sync has elevated Ford’s image as a cutting-edge technology brand, OEMs probably want their brands to be associated with Wi-Fi to at least be relevant in this connected era.”

However, unlike internet usage on the vehicle headunit from a telematics service, which can be tracked by automakers for information gathering or CRM purposes, mobile-device-based internet usage information will not directly benefit the OEM.

However, data that can be collected via a connected in-vehicle system is accessible to the OEM. Knowing which services that drivers and passengers are using in the vehicle can give OEMs clues on what the next killer app might be. In the long run, OEMs must make sure they maintain a constant connection to their customers, rather than just provide them with a pipe.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years