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Tech Throwback Thursday: Connected cars of the past

January 22, 2015
By Alexander Lucas

International CES, or the Consumer Electronics Show, just finished up, and the early hype was all about connected cars. The connected car has slowly evolved from audio playback, OnStar and call answering to the near-future of voice assistants and full-featured apps on a touchscreen dashboard … mounted on your car’s actual dashboard. It won’t be long before Kitt from “Knight Rider” will seem old and archaic compared to the new fleet of connected vehicles.

Let's take a look back at the beginning of the connected car and some very important firsts in mobile communication.

I'll call you from the road

The first car phones date back nearly 70 years. Bell Labs first tested out a mobile service in June 1946 in St Louis. By 1948 the service had expanded to 100 areas (primarily cities), and counted 5,000 customers.

However, there were some limitations. The phone and receiver together weighed a hefty 80 pounds. It was also not a cheap service: It cost $15 a month, and 30-40¢ a call. In 2014 that would roughly equate to $145 a month and $3.87 a call. And you thought your phone bill was excessive!

Another downfall: At most, only three subscribers could be using the service in any one area at one time.  

Breaker, Breaker 10-21

As the first car phones appeared, so did citizens band (CB) radios. In 1945 the Federal Communications Commission began allowing citizens to use a radio band for communication. The radio band now associated with CB radio, however, was not created until 1958, after which CB radio began to take off among small businesses and truck drivers.  

If you are not familiar with CB radio, please go ahead and put this article aside for a minute and watch “Smokey and the Bandit.” No really, I’ll wait. Finished it? Doesn't CB seem really cool now? Well, many others thought so too, and thanks to iconic films like “Smokey and the Bandit” and shows like “The Dukes of Hazzard,” CB radio became even more popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In fact, CB became widespread enough that its band became noisy and made communication difficult.

Although CB radio and car phone use has greatly diminished in the cell phone age, CB did leave us with a wonderful language of slang and codes. You ever had a “bear bite”? Or “driven over a comedian”? You can thank CB radio. 

And since all of you just watched “Smokey and the Bandit” and were undoubtedly drooling over the Bandit's car, you should know it carries quite the hefty price tag: $450,000.

All at your fingertips, in-car Internet

As far as I can research, the first cars to become rolling Wi-Fi hotspots appeared in 2008. In that year, Chrysler launched UCONNECT, which promised Wi-Fi access up to 50 yards from the vehicle (though seemingly the point of in-car Wi-Fi would be to be "in the car"). Now Wi-Fi services are available on a variety of models from multiple car manufacturers.

So what is left to accomplish?

Like many elements of the grand-sounding Internet of Things, connected cars can still see many improvements, including self-automation, fully digital displays and seamless connection with other smart devices.

What would you like to see in your dream, connected car? Did you ever have and use either a car phone or CB radio? Do you think it strange that I mentioned two different Pontiac Firebird Trans AMs in the same article? And be sure to check out our last Tech Throwback Thursday: A Turing Test Introspection.

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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