At the world's automakers, hope springs eternal that busy on-the-go moguls will flock to cars decked out with the latest in communication and computer technology. Trouble is, unless there's a staff chauffeur in the picture, cars make terrible offices. That hasn't stopped car companies from pushing the idea of the mobile office in a big way.
Deals on wheels
Consider, for instance, the new Brabus iBusiness 2.0 -- a customized Mercedes S Class from a respected German tuning firm that bristles with mobile office tech. The car, as yet unpriced, is a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, and a pair of iPad 2s are built into fold-out rear-seat tables incorporating Bluetooth keyboards, enabling Apple Facetime video conferencing.
In the trunk is a Mac Mini, with a screen and controls integrated into the headliner. Power curtains ensure privacy, and there's a Brabus Yachting wood-trim package if you're a Greenwich clubby type. If you want your iBusiness 2.0 to be bulletproof, I'm sure that can be arranged.
Another option is the custom-built LandJet Mobile Office Van. It's "designed for executives and businessmen who want to dominate their market, not just compete," but it's also mounted in the body of a minivan that reeks of soccer mom.
At least one company had the business traveler at least partially in mind. This week, Audi said it will join with T-Mobile USA for in-car wireless services that will turn its car into a secure Wi-Fi spot, with integrated Audi Connect services (right) tying into Google Earth, Sirius traffic and other functions. But that's got broader appeal, including for parents who will appreciate their back-seat kids' ability to connect their gadgets on long trips. Audi is fighting driver distraction with a control system that recognizes words input with a fingertip.
The AM radio got the news, too
Audi touts the system's ability to use cutting-edge technology to "access the most current information," but AM car radios could do that.
The 1967 Chrysler Imperial Mobile Executive show car was the forerunner of Brabus' office on wheels, and it offered "a separate radio telephone for voice transmission," swivel seats enabling busy execs to network across a telescoping table, and even a primitive "datafax transmitter." A typewriter was standard, too. The office on wheels didn't make it into production, though the swivel seats were briefly offered.
Where it all comes to a screeching halt
Of course, making deals doesn't usually go along with negotiating traffic lights, or at least doing that safely. Cars make nice kinetic settings for film scenes in which someone is given an offer he can't refuse, but it's unlikely that much legitimate face-to-face business gets conducted in them.
The big obstacle isn't the ability to connect to the wider world, it's holding a meeting in a cramped car interior when a perfectly good office is probably available. That will keep the mobile office a small niche product, even as carmakers ratchet up the car's connectivity.
Another problem of course, is driver distraction. We do business in our cars, but it's mostly drivers shouting into cellphones. As Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone demonstrated, the office car pool is dead and we mostly drive by ourselves to and from work. A car-office meeting needs a quorum, and a solo driver is just going to get frustrated by driving with all that high-tech equipment that can be safely accessed only when the car is stopped.
Brabus might see its mobile office as a corporate perk, but would that justify all the money spent on the new connected conference room?