The first 4G car, the Audi S3, debuts in Europe; U.S. must wait until spring

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The world’s first LTE-connected car, courtesy of Audi, began rolling out of the factory and onto lots in Europe on Thursday. The Audi S3 Sportback now comes with an option for an embedded Gemalto LTE module as part of its technology package, making it the first production car to come with fully integrated 4G connectivity.

U.S. customers will get an LTE option as well on the A3 Sedan, but they’ll have to wait until next spring. A three-door plug-in hybrid version of the S3 Sportback is also scheduled for U.S. release in 2015. Audi spokesman Brad Stertz told GigaOM that now that its first 4G car is in production, the German carmaker will roll out the feature to the rest of the fleet quickly, including its entire A3 line in Europe starting in November.

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What’s particularly interesting is how signing up for in-vehicle 4G connected car service will be different in the U.S. and Europe, mimicking the way those different regions buy phone service. In Europe, 4G Audi owners can use any carrier’s network. They just need to insert a data SIM card into the dash.

In the U.S. though, Audi connectivity will most likely be tied to a specific operator, Stertz said, just like most of our smartphones are optimized for specific carriers. That makes some sense, given the complexity of U.S. LTE networks.

The_Audi_A3_with_4G-LTE_integration_Audi_45783While in Europe most carriers are deploying their networks on three common bands, in the U.S. every operator is using a different LTE frequency. Just like Apple and Samsung make separate versions of the iPhone and Galaxy for different carriers, Audi may need to supply different modules for those different networks.

Stertz said Audi is still negotiating with U.S. operators now and will make an announcement about which carrier or carriers it will partner with at a later date.

Even though Audi won’t have its first U.S. 4G car until next year, it will likely beat all of its rivals to market. General Motors plans to make AT&T LTE standard in all cars starting in model year 2015. BMW has developed a LTE hotspot accessory car owners can use to create miniature wireless LAN within the vehicle, but it hasn’t started selling it yet. The accessory approach also means it’s not integrated with the car’s infotainment system, so you can connect your gadgets in the car but not the car itself.

Audi is going fully integrated from the get go. The S3 and forthcoming A3 will use their LTE chips to link its on-board nav system to the cloud with access to Google Earth and Streetview. Drivers can access social media networks Facebook and Twitter with voice commands, though its Audi Connect platform is still light on other apps. And the LTE connection can also be redistributed to other devices in the car through Wi-Fi.

How you’ll wind up paying for the service is still an open question. Many people will balk at the thought of buying a separate mobile plan for their cars. That’s why I suspect we’ll see carriers include connected cars in their data share plans. You wind up paying a $5 to $10 monthly device fee to maintain your car’s mobile connection and then draw from the same data bucket shared by your smartphone and tablet.

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Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Sierra Wireless was the LTE module provider for Audi. While Sierra did develop LTE connectivity technologies for the automaker, Audi decided to go with competitor Gemalto’s modules with when it started manufacturing the S3.

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