Stuck in traffic and sick of Howard Stern, you may soon be able to tune in to the music collection of the person in the car in front of you.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are developing an ad hoc networking system for cars that would allow any driver to broadcast music to any other vehicle within a 30-mile radius.

Developed by a group of current and former master’s students at the Human Computer Interaction Institute, the Roadcasting project would allow drivers to stream their MP3 music collections by Wi-Fi or similar technology to any other vehicle within range that is equipped with compatible hardware and software.

The system — still largely theoretical — will also feature a collaborative-filtering mechanism that compares music in a recipients’ collection to that of the broadcaster. The filter will pump out a mix of songs matching the listener’s tastes.

“What’s really cool about this is that while you’re busy (driving), Roadcasting will just pick songs that you enjoy,” said Mathilde Pignol, one of the Roadcasting developers, “and then it will let you influence the songs with your music taste without you having to do anything.”

Roadcasting was commissioned by a “major automaker” looking for applications to make use of mobile ad hoc networks that will be included in production cars in the next few years. Pignol would not say which company the team had worked for, but Carnegie Mellon researchers have a history of working for General Motors on so-called cars of the future.

According to Dan Benjamin, senior analyst with ABI Research, several automakers and the Department of Transportation may implement mobile ad hoc networks as early as 2007.

Using 802.11p technology, a Wi-Fi variant designed for vehicles, mobile ad hoc networks would serve two important purposes, Benjamin said. First, vehicles with built-in 802.11p could serve as nodes in mesh networks and send each other safety notifications in case of accidents, or potential accidents. Acting as nodes in a mesh, each car would extend the network’s signal a mile at a time.

Secondly, Benjamin said, vehicles with such technology could serve as nodes and pass on traffic information that would help drivers choose the most efficient routes to their destinations.

“It definitely has a societal benefit,” Benjamin said.

Some auto industry experts think that while the technology is a ways off, car companies will be eager to adopt projects like Roadcasting.

“I definitely can see a carmaker jump in, just like General Motors jumped in with XM Radio,” said Walter Keegan, the author of Autoblog. “Just to tout the next big thing or to have something different…. That would be a big selling point.”

Roadcasting has been compared to two similar personal-audio projects: SoundPryer, which lets people create mobile ad hoc networks for eavesdropping on music being played on nearby MP3 players, and tunA, a similar system employing Wi-Fi to jack into nearby music gadgets.

Of course, given that Roadcasting calls for a nontraditional approach to broadcasting, some worry it will cross legal boundaries; after all, broadcasters must pay licensing fees to The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

But Pignol and her four teammates on the project think Roadcasting is on solid legal ground.

“We’ve noticed a lot of people blogging about it calling it pirate radio,” Pignol said. “But there’s no reason it has to be illegal. It’s your own music that you’re broadcasting.”

Jason Schultz, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agreed, but said the Roadcasting team might want to prepare itself for being contacted by the recording industry’s lawyers.

“I’m sure the RIAA is going to have problems with this,” Schultz said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s illegal.”

In fact, he explained, because Roadcasting uses streaming technology to broadcast songs and doesn’t result in the permanent transfer of music files, it is probably safe from infringing behavior.

“It’s quite similar to how (Apple Computer’s) iTunes works, with its subnet sharing,” Schultz explained, “in that they can stream the music and listen to it, but as soon as they log off, it all disappears. Many people consider that to be fair use, because of the ephemeral nature of the music.”

In fact, he said, Roadcasting is at the forefront of what he called “me-to-me” technology, in which small networks of dozens of users utilize new broadcasting media instead of massive networks of millions of users.

“This is the next big challenge for the RIAA,” said Schultz. “If they thought file sharing over P2P networks was a threat to their business model, then this is a whole different challenge that they have to adapt to, because there’s no way they can police this.”

By Daniel Terdiman

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