Car Phone

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1975 (pro-quest)

The car phone is a device utterly true to its name - a telephone made to be installed in, and operated from, an automobile. They represent the first installment of the mobile telephone, a pre-generation to cellular technology.

A Brief Technological History of the Car Phone

An important aspect to consider when understanding the development of the car phone is the difference between "Mobile Telephony" and "Cellular Telephony." The Mobile Telephone was invented by Bell Laboratories in 1946, while cellular technology was conceptualized in 1947, but not technically feasible till the advent of transistors. Because car phones were developed in an organic manner, it was limited greatly by practical technological limits of the times. Such issues included extreme power requirements, costs, and size. The car phone was not actually theoretically feasible in the United States in the way we understand it today until 1962, when the first automatically switched wireless networks were granted wireless spectrum by the FCC. Cell phones were created as a superior revisionist technology which addressed not only the technological shortcomings of the mobile phone, but also a re-focusing of the technology on individual phone users, rather than telephony locales. (History of Mobile)

The first prototype of a mobile telephone, pioneered by Bell Labs in 1946, was billed as a "radio telephone," which involved transmission on a single frequency, which resulted in CV radio style telephones, where one person spoke, and then another person responded after the transmission was received. This first network was known as MTS (Mobile Telephone Service), when replaced by a duplex network, IMTS (Improved Mobile Telephone Service), in 1964. IMTS is thought to be the first "modern" mobile telephone network, meaning a automatically switched network which allowed for multi-channel phone conversations and direct mobile to mobile calls (History of Mobile). Once IMTS was deployed, the concept of cellular technology was invented, but phone companies were unable to secure new radio frequency until much later, which perhaps extended the life of the car phone to well into the 1990s.

While the United States was floundering with the FCC attempting to create better networks, the Swedes were trying to incorporate this technology into their everyday lives. The first prototype of a car phone was created by Ericsson, in 1956 outside of their Stockholm offices. The phone itself weighed "40 kilos and was about the size of a suitcase... [w]hen mounted in a car, it cost almost as much as the car" (History of Ericsson). In its first incarnation, it was said that the only call one could make would be to the service station, as the power required to make a call actually killed the car battery. The first implementation of this technology was thought to allow for a "doctor on call and bank on wheels" - two concepts which signify that the car phone was imagined as a way of creating a living and working space for individuals, rather than a tool for mobile, on-the-go personal communication (History of Mobile). With other restrictions, such as the fact that the network in 1956 could only handle approximately 100 subscribers, more mainstream adoption would have to wait until the early sixties, with improvements in network technology, and proliferation of the transistors to make these phones market viable.

Once IMTS was established and implemented in the late sixties, with the first marketable network established in Chicago, the American mobile car phone began, albeit slowly. Once this initial model was established, the car phone continued to gain popularity as it became smaller and cheaper to operate, culminating in the Motorola Portable Telephone (one of the most popular brands and models), and the mainstream proliferation and acceptance of the car phone.

Early Representations of Car Phones in Society

Before Car Phones became what they were as most people understand them today, many people had different ideas as to what would make a great portable telephone. Here are a few examples of some of these bumps along the way.

The Front Cover of the Seattle Times Claiming the Arrival of the Automobile Phone

Collins Wireless Telephone

Before Car Phones became a widespread phenomenon, there were several instances of people beginning to grapple with the concept of a "car phone." The first of these instances surrounded the Collins Mobile Telephone, and subsequent scandal thereafter. Fredick Collins, obsessed with the idea of creating Wireless Telegraphy after Marconi invented his wired telegraph, and spent much of his life attempting to makes these dreams a reality. In wanting to create a mobile telegraph, and subsequently, telephone, Collins saw the primary use to be used in cars. From an article in Modern Electronics from 1903:

"Mr. Collins proposes to eliminate this decidedly adverse feature of automobiling by employing the wireless telephone. Consequently every garage or shop will be equipped with the wireless telephone, as they are now with the tire pump and ignition plugs, and this latter day telephone will always be set up ready for use. Likewise, every auto will be provided with a portable wireless telephone. Then in the event of the inevitable accident the 'phone can be taken out, set up ready for use and communication established with the nearest garage, and an auto with men and needful mechanism sent post haste to the scene to repair it." (Collins Wireless Telephone)

Unfortunately, while Collins did have a short distance radio telephone (something closer to a walkie talkie than a telephone) working, his inventions never lived up to his "wild claims," and after several counts of stock fraud and fraudulent demonstrations, he was forced to close up shop, and his mobile automobile telephone was never realized.

Other Ideas for Automobile Telephone

The Car Phone had many iterations of entrepreneurs and inventors trying to formulate exactly what the device was, as well as what it could be. Notable patents which were passed included works by Charles H. Kikby, who invented what he called the "Automobile Telephone" in 1932. This was simply a bank of payphones which was positioned into place where people who could make calls without having to leave their car (Automobile Telephone Patent).

Another interesting false start for the Car Phone is outlined in a patent for the "Automobile Radio and Communication System." This technology, patented by Alfred N. Goldsmith in 1939 allowed for vehicles within close proximity to talk to each other through their pre-existing car radios, much like CB radios that Long Haul Truckers use to communicate with each other today (Automobile Radio and Communication System Patent).

The important consideration to remember is that the invention of the car phone was an organic development of technology, a type of hack to allow for mobile telephones to be used in a place where they could be marketed and used by individuals.

The Media Creates Mystique: The Shoe and Bat Phone

bat phones were in use a good 15 years before widespread American adoption (Private Online)
Hello? Chief? (Private Online)

There were many cases of mobile telephony which existed in fiction, which were technically feasible, but not yet available to the general public. Two of the best known examples are the "Batphone" and Maxwell Smart's Shoe phone. Such visualizations of the near-future gave such television shows a feeling of excitement and provided a glimpse of what the future could allow. While both of these examples may seem slightly silly,they serve to help us understand the awareness the public had on the uses and purposes of mobile telephones, and to normalize their benefits and use to the general public.

Mainstream Adoption and Societial Proliferation

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1981 (Proquest)


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 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 thought 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 car phone coincided with the beginnings of a great technological boom, one which we are still experiencing. At the time, new technology was blossoming all around the unwitting consumer. In an economically stable time when many young college graduates were scoring high earning jobs, the flashy new media with a high initial investment rate found a toehold. All of this was facilitated by the popularization of credit cards, and an overall abstraction of money. In 1988 the U.S. government officially started accepting credit cards, separating the concept of money from dollar bills at the most official state level (Tolchin). This ultimately linked the power of the consumer with the new buying demographic of young urban professionals, a group which would later colloquialize itself into the category “yuppies” (Batutis).

The Symbiosis of Beepers and Mobile Car Phones

An interesting parallel technology which also became popular at the same time as the car phone was the beeper. Socially the beeper served as a way in which to contract an individual when they may have not been close to an identifiable phone, and were perhaps used to contact people at times in which they couldn’t take a call, much in the same way SMS messages are used today. While beepers are technically separate devices, they did rely on the same network, and allowed more people to stay in contact with a network which could scale to levels of everyone having their own personal car phone.


The new technology of the car phone had a few limitations that were met with social outcry. First, 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).

Second, another shortcoming of the car phone was that actually speaking on it was a driving hazard. The niche of the media itself caused public disgruntlement as the technology which was marketed to keep you safer and more in touch, actually was likely to cause you to get into a crash (“Hello”). Around the late 80’s, more strict car phone regulations were in place, or at least, more stern warnings (Ward). This was merely the beginning of a long battle between the “use anywhere” idea of ever advancing technology, and safety. For example, only since the summer of 2008 is it required to use a hands free device while driving in the State of California.


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)

In 1996 the FCC 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).

When the car phone was first introduced to consumer markets it was targeted at the wealthy (most commonly businessmen). It was first promoted as an integrated status-symbol and business device that allowed individuals to perform their jobs more efficiently by staying connected while out of the office. However, the large successful adoption of the car phone by businessmen drove up the device's popularity and broadened its consumer market reach. Car phone users became more diverse - for example, it was common for housewives, who spent much of their days running errands and driving children around in their cars, to use car phones to keep in touch while out of the house.

In order to appeal to the new consumer market the promotion of car phones switched from focusing on business capabilities to focusing on mobility. And, as consumers began to demand such mobility they also began to expect similar standards of service on their car phones as were available on land-line telephones. However, it was this shift in focus that paved the way to the death of the car phone. This is because, ironically, the death of the car phone was brought about by the Federal Communication Commission’s desire to improve emergency service. Ultimately, since the car phone lacked E911, consumers were unable to integrate it fully into their lives - it lacked basic and fundamental properties found in land-line phone services. This meant that the car phone was not mobile enough because it was incapable of replicating the ability of landlines to always be connected (i.e., always have 911 available).

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, the successor to the IMTS network. 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).

Analog technology (along with the car phone) failed because it was unreliable compared to digital technology; using analog service for communication with a car phone often led to voice distortion and complete loss of signal. This increased consumers' fears over the lack of safety - what would happen if they got into a car accident in an area not covered by a good analog signal? If they were unable to notify proper authorities with their car phone, would they not receive necessary assistance?




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 to an advisor
  • Connection to emergency services
  • Hands-free calling
Bluetooth (via Lexus)


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 (invented in 1994). 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).

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).

Both OnStar and Bluetooth are modern day examples of what the car phone was intended to do but was unable to do successfully. Had the car phone not been limited by the lack of E911 (full mobility) and the structure of analog I would imagine it would have incorporated many of the capabilities (i.e., safety, mobility, convenience) that have made OnStar and Bluetooth so successful today.

Works Cited

Batutis, Michael. “Yuppies: Who are they?” St. Petersburg Times. Lexis Nexis. 25 May 1987. <>

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

Car Phone Seattle Times ad, via FCC , 1903 <>

Costa, Louisa. “Car Phone Sales up Despite Scanners.” Sydney Morning Herald. Lexis Nexis. 3 Dec 1986. <>.

Colleen, Ryan. “Bookie Spends $18,000 to Thwart Electronic Snoops.” Sunday Mail. Lexis Nexis. 29 Mar. 1987. <>

Cooper et al. Radio Telephone System. Cooper et al., assignee. Patent 3906166. 1975.

"Display Ad 1503 -- No Title. " New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 3 May 1981,WC5, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2005). ProQuest. NYU. 3 Oct. 2008 <>

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"Display Ad 540 -- No Title." New York Times (1857-Current file). New York, N.Y.:Sep 28, 1975. p. 165 (1 pp.)

Dubilier, William, "The Collins Wireless Telephone" Modern Electrics, August, 1908 via (

Farley, Tom. "History of the Mobile Phone." Mobile Telephone History. Privatelone (via FCC). 14 Oct. 2008 <http://>.

Farley, Tom. "Mobile Phone History." Mobile Phone History. 20 Feb. 2002. 14 Oct. 2008 <>.

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. <>.

Goldsmith, Alfred N. AUTOMOBILE RADIO AND COMMUNICATION. Radio Corporation of America, assignee. Patent 2138598. 1938.

“Hello? Hello? Cruuuunch!” Newsweek. Lexis Nexis. 9 July, 1984. Pg. 59. <> .

Kikby, Charles H. AUTOMOBILE TELEPHONE. CHARLES H. KIKBY, assignee. Patent 1912376. 1933.

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

Mehegan, David. “Cellular One Turns Up the Heat.” The Boston Globe Online. Lexis Nexis. 31 Oct. 1988. <>.

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. <>.

Tolchin, Martin. “U.S. Plans Wide Use of Credit Cards.” The New York Times. Lexis Nexis. 1 Mar. 1988. <>.

Ward, Daniel. “Using car phones on the move ‘a danger.’” The London Times. Lexis Nexis. 2 Mar. 1987. <>

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