Smart cars turn on to information highway

Cars have been evolving into internet hotspots since General Motors (GM) launched its OnStar service in 1996.

The system, which uses a mobile phone chip integrated into the car's electronics, has evolved over the years from a service allowing vehicle occupants to contact emergency services into a Web-enabled system that even lets a car owner remotely disable a stolen vehicle.

In mid-2008, the US car maker Chrysler was the first in the industry to announce an in-car wireless internet router, which it began offering as an option for its 2009 models. Last year, the car audio firm Blaupunkt partnered with miRoamer, an internet radio service, to make a car stereo system that could stream Web radio through a mobile internet connection. Industry watchers say such services will continue to grow as younger "digital natives", who demand near-constant Web access, increase in importance as car buyers. But increasing regulation by governments, which fear the safety implications of yet another in-car distraction, has the industry cautious.

"Is there impetus? Yes. Is there demand? Absolutely. But I'm worried it is not going to click with the regulators, who are already very restrictive," said David Booth, a Canadian journalist who has followed the development of in-car internet systems. "There are studies saying that we shouldn't even allow hands-free phone use. There are already calls for a total ban on mobile calls in cars, so getting computers in there will be tricky," Mr Booth said.

"Legislators and nannies and safety gurus are going to want to suppress this." One Web-smart feature that is not likely to concern safety experts is the ability to remotely slow a stolen car, a feature introduced in the GM OnStar system last year. Its first reported success occurred last October in California, when a Chevrolet Tahoe, stolen from its owner at gunpoint, was brought to a halt just 16 minutes after the theft, via a message sent over the air waves from an OnStar control centre.

Panicked by the mysterious slowdown when the gas pedal was disabled, the thief jumped from the car and was arrested by police after falling into a swimming pool. "He wouldn't have pulled over if OnStar hadn't have shut the vehicle down," the local police sergeant, Steve Phillips, later told reporters. "Generally pursuits end in a collision."