It was about an hour into the four-hour Thanksgiving Eve drive home to family when it became clear Dad was on his way to yet another epic techno-fail.
“Do you want me to drive?” my wife asked as we inched through unexpected traffic jams in the backwoods of eastern Pennsylvania. Which is about the dumbest question American wives ask American husbands. We are eons removed from red-tooth-and-claw survivalism, but it is still true that on some twisted socio-psychological-biological level, even the soft-bellied, bucket-seated, Frap-sipping male doesn’t think of himself as “driving” so much as clearing brush and deflecting predators in order to deliver his family safely to the appointed destination. Unless a severe stroke was imminent, hell, no I didn’t want her to drive.
“I’m just saying, I don’t think you are supposed to be driving while adjusting a router. I can drive and you can play with the flashing thingie all you want.”
The ordinarily tedious Thanksgiving drive from northern Delaware to northern Jersey to visit both of our clans was supposed to be a grand experiment in mobile connectivity. Not graced with the latest in-car tech from Ford or BMW, I was seeing if we could cobble together the technology to craft a mobile hotspot that made it to our destination fully connected. This Mini Cooper was packed with gadgets. We had among us two iPhones, two iPads, Toshiba and Mac laptops, and a Droid. I was relying on a 4G hotspot from Verizon to pull it all together.
In a modern variant of the hunter-gatherer, this American Dad was providing for his family a new modern staple: connectivity. Sure, any one of us could maintain basic contact via the cellular and data networks for our phones, but I was looking for the mobile hotspot effect. I wanted my family to move its way from point to point in a protective shell of connectedness, as if the home network had been packed into the Cooper pretty much as had the green bean casserole that was being smooshed in the back seat. I had dreams of streaming the Netflix Queue onto one of their laptops so they could watch a Christmas special as Dad careened around obese SUVs in a spry Mini that demonstrated his wisdom on multiple levels: smarter car, smarter gadgetry, etc. Dad 2.0.
“Don’t hit the SUV,” my wife warns as I keep depressing the one inscrutable button that seems to control all things on this mobile hot spot. I understand the attempt at simplifying the process of mobile connectivity, but most of these traveling hotspots rely on obscure iconography on LED displays and a single button that is supposed to have multiple functions. Managing this in stop-and-go traffic is not the ideal use case.
“They are all SUVs,” I counter. “Fat-assed hicks!” I mutter, low enough to ensure no stray redneck hears me.
“You are a skinny guy in a Mini Cooper that is barely visible to this sea of metal. You don’t want to get into a fight with these guys. I love you, but I have to tell you that you are not going to scare anyone storming out of this clown car in a rage. Anyway, I was raised in these parts. This is gun country.”
“Oh. Look, my laptop did get onto Facebook,” my daughter yips from the cramped back seat of the Mini Cooper, which gets smaller with every hour on the road. “Oops, gone again. Sorry, Dad.” By this point her voice is dripping with joyous sarcasm.
It didn’t start well. I actually had planned programming for the trip, including maintaining Pandora’s Christmas music channel much of the way. Using the mobile hotspot, I tied the iPhone running Pandora through the car audio. This worked for all of one song and even gave me an audio commercial through the Internet radio service. Then, Pandora or my car audio choked. We couldn’t get past the first tune in the stream.
And once we passed the Pennsylvania line, the 4G started getting spotty. The Verizon modem is designed to fall back to 3G, which is reflected in a purple light rather than green for 4G connectivity. A flashing rather than solid light seems to indicate that one of your devices is connected.
“It’s flashing, it’s flashing. Please drive, now,” my wife chides.
“It says I am connected but I can’t get a page to come up,” my daughter reports from her post on the Mac Book in the back seat.
“Don’t encourage him to play with the router again,” my wife warns my last loyal wingman. “You are swerving out of your lane,” she yells.
“We are crawling to the next red light. We’re technically not even driving. Take the iPad and see if you can get online.”
And so it went. The grand experiment in mobile mobility ended somewhere in northeastern Pennsylvania.
No doubt we will get to the point where cellular connectivity will turn the car into a traveling hotspot with some degree of consistency and speed. How and why we want this to happen is another matter altogether. Persistent access to one’s media library will be convenient once the car can tap into a cloud that soon will become the home for much of our owned and rented content.
As my wife and daughter discovered, their existing smartphone networks were sufficient for much of the material like messaging and mapping they ordinarily would access on those devices anyway. In-car connectivity of a richer kind allows the screens to get bigger and the media stream to be richer. The tablet especially will become more versatile on the road. Services like Netflix and Pandora that already work seamlessly across other platforms will get an expanded footprint to be sure. Some services may even get some interesting new wrinkles in geo-located marketing partnerships. Any mobile ad network or publisher that knows my driving route suddenly gets a host of opportunities for marketing to me at critical points of need.
Ironically, the only person in my car that actually wanted connectivity was busy driving.
“Oh, look at this button, honey,” my wife needles. “I wonder what it does? How about that! A car radio. And look, music comes out no matter where you are.”