The Ultimate Office on Wheels
“I can walk out of a three-hour client meeting,” exults Minneapolis ad man Charles Webber, ‘‘be driving back to my office and answer all the phone messages that stacked up while I was gone. By the time I get in, I’m no longer behind. I’m up and ready.” Adds Webber, whose agency billed $5 million last year: “The car phone has become my third arm, it’s invaluable.”
What we have here, folks, is true romance: breakthrough technology (in the form of cellular communication) meets sexy car (already the object of a longstanding American love affair). And you don’t have to stop at that voice-activated cellular speaker phone, with optional hands-free operation so you can keep both hands on the wheel while talking. Instead, you add a special cellular modem and, suddenly, your portable fax starts to spit out important papers, or your laptop computer laps up long-distance data, as you go breezing down the road.
Now throw in a printer, a dictaphone, a mobile pager or two, tape recorder, CD player, tape deck, VCR, camcorder, television and state-of-the-art speakers, and suddenly you’re no longer driving a mere car. You’re in a mobile monument to some informational New Age—the vanguard of what management consultant Stanley M. Davis, author of Future Perfect (Addison-Wesley, $9.95), calls the “Any Time, Any Place society.”
In 10 years, predicts Stuart Crump Jr., co-author of Portable Office (Acropolis Books, $16.95), cellular technology will transform the way we work as thoroughly as the steam engine did. “We’ll all have a home base,” says Crump, “but that’s not necessarily where the work will get done. It means the end of the nine-to-five workday and encourages a wave of small entrepreneurial businesses geared to service and information.”
That footloose future looks pretty good from where Webber sits (above), tucked behind the wheel of a $70,000 black Mercedes 560 SEL loaded with $9,000 worth of phone, pager, tape recorder and spectacular Alpine sound system. Not that the gear itself looks especially impressive. You never see it — only a dashboard full of controls — since he spent another $8,000 having all those bulky boxes surgically implanted in a compartment in the trunk (right). “I’d rather put my money in the car I use every day than in some sailboat that’s always in drydock,” explains Webber, 34. “I’m not chained to the office. Concepts come to me while driving around, and when I’m uptight I blast myself with Milli Vanilli to clear out my head and feel great.”
Such is the promise our technological future holds, and the cellular phone is responsible. From an initial test with 5,000 users in Chicago six years ago, these gadgets have multiplied to serve 3.5 million customers in 1989, a projected 5.2 million by year-end. The demand is rapidly outgrowing the existing analog networks, which are expected to handle a maximum of 18 million subscribers by 1995. On the horizon, however, is digital cellular — a faster, more accurate and cheaper transmission system that can accommodate at least four times as many callers.
In truth, we’re just beginning to tap the potential of the office on wheels. Consider: if info can be faxed or retrieved online, he’s as good as there. Sketches, blueprints, contracts — the works. “I’ve cut down my need to be in the office by over 50%,” says 29-year-old Cindy Brown (above), sales manager for Contel Cellular, an Atlanta-based company that has cellular networks across the U.S. Being in the biz, of course, Brown is thoroughly up to date. “I do most of my work from the car,” she explains. “I leave messages with electronic mail. I fax in orders. And I use the laptop for pricing, customer history or billing.”
Like most who know their way around an auto office, Brown is conscientious — for safety — about pulling off the road to conduct business. Apparently, most cellular-savvy souls are too. At least so far, there’s no indication that these devices pose much of a crackup threat. “We don’t see any significant rise in accidents where the primary reason was divided attention because of being on the phone,” reports Steve Kohler of the California Highway Patrol, “and we ought to see such things sooner than other states because we have a high volume of cellular users.”
Insuring these gadgets is another matter. The standard auto policy covers only “equipment permanently installed in the car that is exclusively for reproducing sound,” says June Bruce of the Insurance Services Office, which draws up forms for many insurance companies. That means no phones. Individual companies, though, sometimes take a more liberal attitude. Allstate’s comprehensive policy covers anything that arrived with the car from the maker. “Anything else, such as a laptop or fax, must be covered by an add-on in the homeowners policy,” says Allstate’s Perry Chian. Our advice? Quiz your agent.
Calling him from your car, however, won’t come cheap. The phone itself starts at $500 and can run up to about $2,500 for the slip-it-in-your-pocket size. You may also want a portable fax ($600 to $1,500), in which case you’ll need the special error-correcting modem ($150 to $1,000) that avoids loss of data as you drive from place to place. And then there’s the phone bill — about $100 a month, for moderate calling (meaning 10 minutes or so a day) in a big city like Los Angeles.
Of course, prices for equipment and services vary depending on quality and geography, so the usual caveats apply: shop around, fully aware that the lowest price is probably not the best deal. Says Michael Meresman, editor of a new national monthly magazine based in Los Angeles, Mobile Office (target circulation: 150,000): “You can get a complete setup for $5,000 or $6,000, but that doesn’t cover the costs of customizing.”
Don’t count on your auto dealer to do much of this customizing for you. A car company’s cellular option is likely to be a “mounting space” — a rectangular hole in the console that you fill at your expense. To create a mobile office worthy of the name, you need a local converter — or “coach” — company. At Compliment Conversions (800-445-3577) in Camanche, Iowa, for instance, one of the largest and oldest in the country, “business-type installations are up about 40% over last year,” says Dan McChane, vice president and director of sales. The average installation — including phone, fax and videocassette player — runs $15,000, equipment included. For the carriage trade, the Dillinger/Gaines Coach Works in New York City offers what might be called a Trumpmobile — an $85,000 stretch limo on a Cadillac chassis with two cellular phones, fax, CD player, desk and tables, safe, aircraft lighting, bar, TV and assorted accoutrements and one more item that will be especially valuable to some clients — the paper shredder. Donald “Art of the Deal” Trump got the prototype gratis by lending his name but otherwise has nothing to do with the company. So far, says Bruce Cirlin at Dillinger, “we sell about 10 a year.”
That’s 10 more than most of us will buy. Still, owners insist that a well-feathered limo offers special benefits on the fast track. “In the midst of litigation,” says West Los Angeles lawyer Howard Roy Schechter, 46 (above), “it’s hard to find someplace comfortable, away from the press and prying eyes. With the limo, I have a secure, air-conditioned, upholstered retreat.”
Furthermore, if he doesn’t like the view out his office window, he can tell the chauffeur to drive somewhere else.