Automakers Cautious About Wireless Nets

www.computerworld.com |  Hardware

Workers commute. Cars break down. But in the
not-too-distant future, new in-vehicle wireless networks could diagnose mechanical trouble and make commutes more productive.

Bluetooth 1.0, a protocol for transmitting short-range radio signals to link electronic devices to the Web, is the basis for a new breed of wireless services. The protocol supports a range of devices, including cellular phones, mobile computers and portable devices such as the Palm Pilot.

Using a Bluetooth-based wireless personal area network installed in a vehicle, a motorist could synchronize addresses on a cell phone with those on a personal digital assistant or retrieve diagnostic data about an alternator problem under the car's hood, for example.

A number of heavyweight technology players, including IBM, Intel Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Motorola Inc. in Schaumburg, Ill., have announced Bluetooth-enabled systems and devices for the dashboard. But automakers and analysts said support for the standard is still a ways off.

Proceed With Caution

Thilo Kowslowski, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said automakers and technology vendors are still tackling the technical challenges presented by implementing the wireless standard in vehicles. Those issues include checking radio-emission interference and ensuring that microcontrollers can withstand extreme temperatures.

"Before the automakers equip their vehicles with anything new, they must make sure it doesn't cause any other problems for drivers," he said.

Electromagnetic interference from Bluetooth wireless devices and processors -- about the same frequency range as a microwave oven -- could disrupt radio reception or electronic ignition systems in cars, said analysts.

Several automakers have Bluetooth projects in the works, including Munich-based Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, General Motors Corp. and Wolfsburg, Germany-based Volkswagen AG, but they said they don't expect to have working products available to consumers until the 2003 model year, at the earliest.

The world's largest automaker, Detroit-based GM, already has a big stake in in-vehicle communications with its OnStar business. GM said subscriptions to OnStar, its cellular communications service, will top 500,000 by year's end. But Mike Hichme, a lead systems engineer at GM, said the automaker is still doing its homework on Bluetooth.

"Bluetooth isn't the Ginsu-knife solution for everything," he said. "It's promising, but it's not something we're banking on. We do not just put in technology for technology's sake."

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