Peer-to-peer (P2P) networking is a common feature in the lives of many consumers today. If you use Skype, you use P2P as part of Skype's global network. Those free or cheap calls use shared bandwidth from all connected users to create a network to carry the communication. If you download music, video or applications illegally from one of many fly-by-night torrent networks, you also use P2P to provide the bandwidth necessary to carry the download and also access the files as they are stored on distributed computers globally, many of them private, personal machines.

But why not scale this idea to our public infrastructure as a way of allowing our vehicles to communicate to networks and each other as we drive on the open road, or sit in city traffic. Internet access is coming to cars and other vehicles, following on the heels of satellite radio. But vehicles whose drivers or passengers want access--to a file, a piece of media, or simply open Internet access--may not always have the needed line of sight to connect to a satellite. Furthermore, each vehicle can be a useful node itself, providing information about driving conditions, or even important updates for our own car's electronics. So, why not mesh vehicles together to create ad hoc networks as we drive?

This concept has been put forward by a team of researchers at UCLA, working with BMW and Toyota among others, to create CarTorrent, a system which would allow network-ready vehicles to interconnect and share both bandwidth and services, effectively making cars on the road an intelligent, on-the-fly network. For an estimated $500 worth of equipment, the long-sought goal of creating efficient vehicle-to-vehicle communication could be achieved, say its designers. Passengers in car A seeking a download of a new movie might connect to SUV B, which in turn may relay a connection and bandwidth captured from restaurant C it is passing up the road to start the download, under the scheme.

Mario Gerla, one of CarTorrent's designers, likens the potential spread of a system like this to the growth of GPS and WiFi: both started slow but are now catching on due to their simplicity and ease of access. This won't turn our streets into a Web of driverless vehicles, as GM and others forsee, but it may be able to turn the world's largest networks--our roads--into the framework for intelligent services that extend to one of the next big platforms for networked communication and media, our vehicles. Consumers will favor open, simple access to networks over premium pricing and proprietary technology for closed networks, which are what we can expect to see in the next few years for in-vehicle communication in the hands of satellite providers. One big task, besides getting the technology right, will be establishing a Wi-Fi-like roaming infrastructure to allow open access to available networks.