Car Phone

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NOTE: I am playing with these ideas, i have to see which seem to speak to me the most...

What is the Difference Between a Car Phone and a Cell Phone?

Good Question! While it might be easy to say in hindsight that the Car Phone was simply a precursor to the modern cell phone, (and perhaps technologically, it was) however, the car phone served a distinct purpose and idea within it's own historical context. There are several factors which play into the differences between the two devices which underline the core ideological and societal differences between a phone in your car and a phone in your pocket.

A brief Technological History of the Car Phone

Car Phones An important aspect to consider when understanding the the development of the car phone is the difference between "Mobile Telephony" and "Cellular Telephony." The Mobile Telephone invented by Bell Laboratories in 1946, but was not theoretically feasible in the United States in the way we understand it today until 1962. Being a technology which was innovated before the invention and proliferation of the transistors, Mobile Phones were extremely large and clunky, the size of which could be retrofitted into a large briefcase at their smallest (

The first, prototype of a mobile telephone, pioneered by Bell Labs in 1946 could only accommodate 23 simultaneous users within the given spectrum mandated by the FCC, and further innovation was stifled until FCC could be convinced of the mobile phone's usefulness which resulted in new spectrum not being issued until 1968.

Early Representations of Car Phones

Before Car Phones became a widespread phenomenon, there were several instances of people being to grapple with the concept of a "Car Phone" The first of these instances was surrounding the Collines Mobile Telephone, and subsequent scandle thereafter.

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2. early attempts at defining a "car phone"

  a. early car phone fiction places

Possible overlying themes

  1. Concept of a Car as the new American Living Room
  2. Notions of Telephony as related to places, rather than individuals
  3. Practical limit of the technology in time

Pre Car Phone Days

Early thoughts on the Car Phone

Mobile Telephoney in Fiction

Maxwell Smart shoe phone

Real Technological Innovation

Political Acceptance

Mainstream Adoption and Societial Proliferation


Upon first entering the market place, the car phone was promoted as a crucial facilitator for the modern businessperson, and eventually for the modern family. Large telecommunications companies promoted the new technology as a way for “people with drive [to] improve their performance” (Chicago Tribune). As evidenced by Western Union’s mid 80’s ad campaign, the car phone was marketed as a tool for success. The advertisements appeal to people with high-end cars, whose time is in high demand such as young business professionals. One advertisement from a 1984 edition of the LA Times makes claims about producing a phone that is finally “worthy of the car it goes into” and addresses “people in the fast track [who] don’t have time to wait up to half an hour for a telephone line” (LA Times).

This kind of ad tactic was crucial to the success of the car phone because the purchasing initial purchase price was astronomical, even by today’s standards for cellular technology. Initially, the price of just the phone could reach up to $3,000, however as the technology became newer the price of phones fell to around $1,000 (Mehegan). Due to this prerequisite, advertisers targeted the young business elite, a demographic with expendable cash and a desire to progress in the business world. Ads emphasize the advantage owners of a car phone would have over other businessmen, working hard to imbue the technology with status and clout. Like many technologies, the car phone was marketed as a solution to a problem that consumers had barely yet though of: being unable to work when not at work. The car phone, in conjunction with early personal computers, marked the beginning of a generation of technology based on the idea of constant accessibility. An idea that the medium simultaneously introduces, and resolves for the early 1980’s business person.


The new technology of the car phone had a few limitations that were met with social outcry. Firstly, the car phone proved to be a much less private medium than the business elites who invested in them would have preferred. The early cellular technology on which the phone functioned was easily eavesdropped by electronic scanners (Colleen). These scanners were legal, and easily obtained from any electronics store. People would scan car phones maliciously and purely for the entertainment (Costa). This worried many car phone users, and privacy was a concern like never before. Some invested hundreds of dollars for scramblers, however most people just ignored the threat (Colleen).


Despite its popularity and a solid following of enthusiasts, advances in technology (specifically digital technology), sounded the death knell for the car phone.

Enhanced 9-1-1 (E911)

Ironically, the death of the car phone was brought about by the Federal Communication Commission’s desire to improve emergency service. In 1996 the FCC’s introduced wireless Enhanced 911 (E911) so that mobile phones could now provide 911 dispatchers with information technology that allows them to locate the geographical position of mobile phones and see the mobile telephone number of the originating call (FCC).

Prior to 1996, people who called 911 on mobile phones had to access their service providers (to verify subscription service from a cellular service provider) before their call was put through to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). In 1996 the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) ruled that a 911 call must instead go directly to a PSAP. Furthermore, the FCC required that all mobile phones manufactured and sold after February 13, 2000 using analog networks must have a method for processing 911 calls (FCC).

The FCC implemented the E911 rules in two phases. In 1998, Phase I required carriers to identify the call’s originating number and provide it to PSAPs. It also required that the location of the caller be accurate to within 1 mile. In 2001, Phase II required carriers to provide the latitude and longitude of 911 calls within 50 to 300 meters. The deployment of E911 also required either upgrades for existing equipment or the development of new equipment (FCC).


In February 2008 the Federal Communications Commission allowed mobile operators, the largest including AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless, to shut down their analog (AMPS – Advanced Mobile Phone System) networks. Unfortunately, all car phones were operating on this analog system. At the same time, rural mobile operators also shut down AMPS. This resulted in all mobile phones being serviced by digital networks (GSM – Global System for Mobile Communications or CDMA – Code Division Multiple Access). The outcome was that all mobile phones (including the large established base of car phones) operating on analog networks (approximately 1% of all mobile phones) became inoperable (Washington Post).



So what has replaced the car phone? One of the early entrances into the in-vehicle communication category following the car phone was OnStar. In 1995 OnStar was created by General Motors (GM), Electronic Data Systems, and Hughes Electronics Corporation. However, GM became responsible for designing, integrating, and distributing OnStar capabilities for vehicles.

OnStar is an in-vehicle three-button safety and security system that provides:

   * 24-hour access an advisor
   * Connection to emergency services
   * Hands-free calling
     Your browser may not support display of this image. (OnStar) 


But not all drivers need, want, or have access to all the services built into OnStar. Instead, the advancement of technology, specifically mobile phones on digital networks, has become the most popular alternative. One of the reasons for their success is that most digital phones are able to use Bluetooth, a short-range wireless communications technology capable of replacing the cables needed to connect devices. It has achieved global acceptance and is successful at connecting any Bluetooth enabled device, anywhere in the world, to other Bluetooth enabled devices (up to 7) in close proximity (approximately 30 feet). Bluetooth is able to simultaneously handle both data and voice transmissions – this provides innovations such as a hands-free headset for voice calls (Bluetooth). In short, Bluetooth has become the perfect substitute for the car phone.

Lexus has been one of the leaders in implementing Bluetooth technology in their automobiles in the past few years. The company manufactures some of the world’s most technologically sophisticated vehicles – including many that come with built in Bluetooth as a standard feature. This technology works by connecting any Bluetooth equipped cell phone to the vehicle itself – allowing calls to be made and received through the car’s built-in touch screen or controls on the steering wheel. Drivers can talk without holding their cell phone and hear through the car’s audio system (Lexus).

Your browser may not support display of this image. (Lexus)

Bluetooth’s hands-free capability has increased the technology’s popularity globally. For example, in 2004 Japan (like many other parts of the world) began enforcing stricter laws and penalties against using a cell phone while driving. However, because Bluetooth allows drivers to stay more focused on the road and less on their phone calls, it has allowed drivers to stay connected even with the new laws. In turn, this has increased the popularity and production of Bluetooth technologies in cars around the world (The Nikkei Weekly, Japan).

Works Cited

Bluetooth. “Basics.” Bluetooth. 25 Sept. 2008. < Technology/Basics.htm>.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC). “Enhanced 9-1-1 (E911).” FCC. 25 Sept. 2008. <>.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC). “Enhanced 911 – Wireless Services.” FCC. 25 Sept. 2008. <>.

Lexus. “Bluetooth Phone – Overview.” Lexus. 22 Sept. 2008. <>.

OnStar. “OnStar Explained.” OnStar. 22 Sept. 2008. < explore/index.jsp>.

Shimbun, Nihon Keizai. “Carmakers using Bluetooth for Wireless Convenience.” The Nikkei Weekly [Japan]. 15 Jan. 2007. ProQuest. NYU. 23 Sept. 2008. <>.

Washington Post. “Most Analog Cellular to Fade Away Next Week.” Washington Post. 15 Feb. 2008. ProQuest. NYU. 23 Sept. 2008. <>.

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Modern Electrics, August, 1908 "The Collins Wireless Telephone" by William Dubilier, Assistant to Mr. Collins via ( (Car Phone Seattle Times ad)