What do you get when you put a network guy and a race-car driver together? You get Internet in the car. So goes the well-worn joke around the San Francisco-based office of Autonet Mobile, the brainchild of Sterling Pratz, a pro race-car driver, and Doug Moeller, a wireless whiz. In 2005, Pratz and Moeller came together with a shared vision—a world in which any person in any vehicle can have access to the Internet. Five years later and they’re well on their way, holding partnerships with Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Volkswagen and GM.
Autonet brings the Web to cars via what it calls its “TRU technology” routers. The routers, which can plug into a cigarette lighter, transform a vehicle into a WiFi hotspot, just like the one you might find at a coffee shop. The company says its system has an advantage over laptop wireless cards because it can automatically shift between broadband towers when signals are weak, so service is never lost. Though only available in the U.S., Autonet hopes to expand into Canada by year’s end.
The market of connection-coveting clients is growing fast. Autonet fields daily calls from busy mothers, school bus manufacturers and ambulance responders. Kids can work on their laptops while riding the bus, and ambulance workers “can transmit things like EKG readouts to cardiologists,” says Christine Williams, a company spokesperson. (Driving and surfing the Web at the same time, however, is most definitely not recommended.)
The $399 routers must be manually installed. “Easy. Two wires and four screws,” Williams stresses. But Autonet is confident that by 2012, cars will come with fully integrated WiFi capability. Autonet hopes its router will follow in the footsteps of the radio, which went from luxury to standard feature. Autonet is probably also hoping that its router does not follow the path of the car phone (RIP).