Mercedes VP Envisions Net-Ready Cars

Ken Enders, vice president for marketing at Mercedes-Benz USA LLC, said Wednesday that his company wants its cars to become part of the seamless fabric of the Internet and that it's looking for technology players to host the applications that will make it happen.

The Montvale, N.J.-based car company already offers a cellular link to emergency roadside assistance and customer-assistance services in every new vehicle it sells in the U.S. Included in the cellular platform is a Global Positioning System link, while news headlines, traffic reports and weather information can be downloaded onto the displays in each car.

ATX Telecommunications Services in Bala Cynwyd, Penn., hosts those applications, and Enders said Mercedes intends to mimic that kind of agreement as it looks to add even more technology to its automobiles.

"We came to Comdex looking for technology partners," he said. "We really need their expertise and we really need their speed to get to market."

During a keynote speech at the conference, Enders envisioned fully-Internet ready cars that use voice activation to perform commands. He talked about a federated computing model that would allow a fleet of cars to share information about road conditions and parking availability as well as creating maps of the areas through which they travel.

He spoke of "information fueling stations" that will pump out location-specific messages customized to the kinds of information the driver wants to receive. Enders said such stations might also offer automatic software downloads.

He also talked about the possibility of making a car the mobile piece of a householdwide network, allowing it to receive messages from the refrigerator that the home has run out of milk or from the stove that dinner is being cooked.

Enders said that Mercedes will need outside technology players to follow through on these plans.

"And there's a lot of competition to get this done," he said. "There's not an automotive vendor that's not looking to adopt a televised platform in the near future."

Information control will be a key as Mercedes makes that transformation.

"Access to customer information is critical in our business and to maintaining a competitive advantage," Enders said. "We'll share some information with outside technology companies, but we don't want to lose proprietary data."

Enders said Mercedes could easily have as many as 20 hosting arrangements similar to the ATX deal in the coming years.

"It's all in the service level agreements," he said. "That's where it all comes together."

While Enders believes mass-produced cars equipped with wireless local area networks are two or more years off, he believes the information fueling stations could begin to pop up next year.

Ten Square in San Jose, for example, has already rolled out a similar network to 12 service stations in the Atlanta area, offering Coca-Cola discounts and Val-Pak coupons to drivers as they pump gas. Ten Square plans to add more content, such as movie tickets and restaurant specials, and to expand to include automated teller machines and retail lines in the near future.

Enders said he believes car companies will be able to plug into that kind of network using available wireless technology.

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