In-car entertainment has come a long way since the in-dash turntables and AM radios of the 1950s. Today we have in-dash CD changers, DVD players, iPod adapters, even USB ports and flash memory that allow you to listen to your favorite music - and watch your movie collection - on the road.
Now, satellite TV is making its gradual rollout as the newest entertainment option for your car, SUV, or minivan. Last year, KVH Industries became the first company to offer in-car satellite TV with the introduction of the TracVision A5 package. Using the same satellite-TV technology that delivers a digital stream of sports, movies, and news into your home, TracVision brings it all to your vehicle - whether you're tailgating, keeping kids occupied in the back seat, or just listening to the audio feed of your favorite news channels or satellite's array of commercial-free music.
Now for the obvious question: is in-car TV a smart idea?
Some observers look at mobile satellite TV with the same concern they do for DVD players and other in-car entertainment. But the makers of such systems say they're meeting the demand of more and more car buyers who want to keep their kids and other adults occupied on the road. J.D. Power studies report that one-third of all the 2004 model-year SUVs sold in America were outfitted with video screens; other analysts say that by the start of the next decade more than three million vehicles will have in-car satellite TV.
"People want live satellite TV in the car because it provides tremendous variety in entertainment and news, helping pass the time on trips or stay in touch with what's going on in the world using the same content that consumers depend on at home," says Chris Watson, spokesman for KVH.
How it works
In-car satellite TV works on the same principles as in-home satellite TV - by grabbing the signal distributed by a network of satellites orbiting the earth and converting the signals through a receiver into images and sound. Similar systems are available in marine and commercial uses.
In its TracVision application, KVH's technology doesn't rely on a single antenna to provide digital television, though. The A5 setup instead combines a phased-array design with hundreds of antenna elements, which can be rotated and tilted on an axis to orient the antenna toward a stronger satellite signal. A lens inside the antenna assembly focuses the incoming signal, which is then sent off to the receiver to be played back through the vehicle's video display and audio channels.
The antenna itself is five inches high and 32 inches across, and sits atop the vehicle like a very large pizza needing delivery. The antenna housing can be mounted either to the vehicle's roof or to a roof rack, sparing the sheetmetal from drilled holes. The antenna can deliver signals to multiple receivers - say, in limousines.
To those who object to the high-riding A5 antenna, KVH has developed a new, more integrated antenna that will be offered as a part of future TracVision systems. The new embedded automotive TracVision system
is installed within the vehicle's headliner, and its sleek cover remains hidden below the level of the roof rack. It's designed for OEM installations and thus won't be available in the aftermarket - but KVH anticipates it will be offered as an integrated service in some new vehicles in the near future.
The basics of the TracVision A5 package include the roof-mounted satellite dish; cables and connectors to link the dish to a receiver box, mounted somewhere inside the vehicle; and a remote control.
For programming, a single company, DirecTV, provides a single package of programming. The Total Choice Mobile service includes the popular channels like CNN, Disney, and ESPN. Customers who already subscribe to DirecTV are billed $4.99 a month for the new service; those without existing coverage pay $41.99 a month.
But for now, local channels are technically not included in the programming packages. FCC rules and unclear policies at DirecTV mean that sometimes, you can arrange for East and West Coast feeds of the major broadcast networks to be sent to a mobile receiver - but more often, you cannot if the system is installed in a vehicle. Boats and RVs are not included in the policy, though DirecTV requires proof of registration to show that the system is being installed in something other than a passenger vehicle. KVH's Watson says the company is working with DirecTV to get the broadcast-channel situation clarified, "as well as looking at ways to make it technically practical and legal for cars to receive local channels, etc."
My own installation
Being a user of in-car DVD players for my nieces and nephews and also being a no-holds-barred gadget freak, I set out this summer to install my own TracVision system in my personal vehicle, a 2003 Honda Element. The catch? It had to be done before a 6000-mile, round-the country trip - and it had to be good. Knowing that each vehicle is unique and the TracVision system isn't that widespread, I planned a few weeks for the installation and asked around town for the best installers.
Jake Kunz, head of celebrity sales for Atlanta 's Butler Tire, installed the TracVision system featured in the company's demo Navigator. "All kinds of folks install them now," Kunz advised. "We once cut a hole in the center of a brand-new Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen and flushed a dish in the roof...a $12,000 install. It looked factory!"
For my installation, I turned to the Hi-Fi Buys chain, which sells the TracVision package through its stores and has plenty of local outlets in case my system needed a tune-up. Within 48 hours of calling them, the $2300 TracVision system and a new seven-inch Clarion screen were mating up with the Element's 270-watt sound system and headliner. (Drilling into the headliner of an SUV, sacrosanct to me, apparently isn't such a big deal these days. "Go to a used-car dealer and look at all the SUVs with holes in the headliner," my installer told me.)
It didn't take long before the installation hit its first snag. Much as I wanted a screen right in the dash where a head-up display should be, the law thinks otherwise. And yet, at every big-box retailer I went to - Best Buy, Circuit City, and Hi-Fi Buys - the guys in the service bay "knew people" who could take care of that for me. In other words, I could put the screen wherever I wanted - even in full driving view - without lifting a screwdriver.
The Element's unique interior package complicated the issue even more than the moral question. The headliner is shallow and curved slightly, so it's not easy to install a video system up there. Putting the screen in the headrests would be a good but expensive way to go.
Even seating the receiver and dish forced me to make hard choices about how long I'd be driving the Honda and in what condition it might be if I sold it. The Element's flip-up rear seats makes hiding the DirecTV tuner box an issue. And though KVH makes a kit specifically to install the antenna on roof racks, the Element's fixed-position racks need a little aftermarket help (about $100 worth) to fit snugly and securely.
In the end, it was the Element's integrated iPod jack that dictated the installation. I'd keep the stock factory radio, which meant the screen would have to be seated for optimal viewing by the rear-seat passengers.
A day later, and the Element and TracVision were ready to hit the road. Only two hiccups have disrupted the mobile-TV experience: a faulty screen swapped out under warranty, and a mysterious cancellation of mobile service by DirecTV (while the five receivers in my house stayed on). I do have to pay more attention to parking in certain garages, what with the five-inch-high top hat on the Element's roof.
But overall, the TracVision experience has been a great one. I'd rather have HGTV, The Weather Channel, and Comedy Central with me in the car than the 66th installment of Elmo and friends. And during this active hurricane system, I was able to keep track of Dennis and Katrina while camping out under clear skies out West.
Where and how to get it
The TracVision A5 system is available at audio/video shops around the country, in 800 locations like Tweeter/Hi-Fi Buys. KVH says in addition to its pilot program, where Cadillac Escalade buyers can order the system pre-installed in their vehicles, Avis is trying out TracVision in a fleet of HUMMER H3s based in Phoenix . Along with the SEMA announcement of KVH's new trimmer antenna, there's also word that GM will pre-wire its new full-size utes (Tahoe/Suburban/Escalade) to support satellite TV.
If you're interested in the system or want to read more technical information, see the TracVision Web site, http://www.tracvision.com.