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4G cars are coming, but we won’t have much choice in how we connect them

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4G cars are making their way to the U.S., starting first with the Audi A3 and eventually a whole fleet of GM(s gm) vehicles. Embedded LTE could soon be streaming music to our dashboards, providing real-time traffic alerts to our nav systems and downloading Thomas the Tank Engine reruns for Junior to watch in his car seat.

The car will become a new type of connected device like our smartphones and tablets, and like those gadgets our 4G cars will require data plans. But unlike the smartphone and tablet, we’re not going to have a choice on what carrier we buy those plans from. It might seem absurd, but in the U.S. our 4G cars are going to be linked to a specific carrier, just as the first three generations of iPhones were tied to AT&T.

Gemalto's LTE connected car module
Gemalto’s LTE connected car module

That’s the opposite approach to what automakers are doing in Europe. The Audi S3 debuted in Europe with a distinctly European mobile connectivity model. A slot in the dash will take any carrier’s SIM card, and the Gemalto machine-to-machine communications model embedded in Audis supports multiple European GSM, HSPA and LTE bands. You can thank Europe’s coordinated approach to mobility for that flexibility — a single module can cover almost every carrier’s network in almost every country on the continent.

But pulling such a feat off in the U.S. is much different story, said Andreas Hägele, who heads up Gemalto’s M2M portfolio. Not only does the U.S. host multiple mobile standards (CDMA and GSM), but its LTE networks are all over the radio frequency spectrum.

Each of the four major carriers has deployed their initial LTE networks on completely separate bands, and most of them are targeting equally distinct bands for future 4G expansions. Add to that the car’s need for ubiquitous coverage, and any universal module would have to support multiple 2G and 3G technologies on multiple bands. Building a single module that supports all carriers isn’t impossible, but it might as well be, Hägele said; it’s like shooting at a moving target.

“We can do it technically,” Hägele said. “It’s a question of economics on one hand, and strategy on the other.”

Connected services versus simple connectivity

Automakers aren’t selling rote connectivity. They’re selling services ranging from turn-by-turn navigation to emergency roadside assistance to telematics services like remote start. Since they’ll have to vouch for those services, many of them will be very careful about the carrier partners they pick.

GM connected car demoStarting with model year 2015 vehicles, GM will start connecting all cars sold in the U.S. to AT&T’s 2G, 3G and 4G networks. Customers will be able to buy data plans from AT&T(s t) to power in-car Wi-Fi and connect their infotainment apps, but GM is also moving its entire OnStar vehicle safety, navigation and telematics platform onto AT&T’s network. In that deal GM has stipulated AT&T sign roaming agreements with rural carriers and provide service guarantees to ensure OnStar services will work across the country. An emergency roadside assistance service doesn’t do you much good if the carrier connecting your car doesn’t have coverage where you’ve broken down.

In that scenario, GM is the service provider, not AT&T, so it shouldn’t matter to us whose network we’re connected to. For a decade, GM has relied on Verizon to power OnStar and most consumers were none the wiser. If in-car connectivity were only about powering these kind of vehicle-specific services, it wouldn’t be an issue.

But we’re entering an age where our car connectivity is enabling a plethora of apps in vehicles that aren’t provided by the automaker — a trend we’ll be tracking in detail at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in October. But all of those services will require data plans, and the way the connected car market is evolving, we’re basically going to be held captive by a single carrier to provide us those plans.

Apple's Eyes Free in a BMW
Apple’s Eyes Free in a BMW

With today’s emerging connected car systems, many automakers have adopted a bring-you-own-connectivity model in which your smartphone provides the link back to the internet. I don’t anticipate that will always be the case, though.

As apps and user interfaces become more sophisticated and more closely tied to the vehicle’s core functions, integrated connectivity will likely take precedence over simple tethering — and it should. A radio powered by the engine’s alternator and a antenna mounted on the roof are going to deliver a much better mobile data experience than a smartphone linked to the dash by Bluetooth.

But where does that leave the consumer? If I’m an AT&T customer buying a GM vehicle, then I’m set. I merely have to attach my car to my shared data plan. But if I’m a customer of Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod), Sprint(s s), T-Mobile(s tmus) or one of hundred other regional or virtual operators in the U.S., then my options are much more limited.

17 Responses to “4G cars are coming, but we won’t have much choice in how we connect them”

  1. I think many of the commenters have said it. Stupid ideas like this don’t last too long and is only there because someone has a broken business model. In the end the phone will remain the gateway to the internet and the car is just a display device for the phone.

  2. Well, making the car depend on your smartphones internet connection means, that it is not really a connected car but merely an additional sensor of your phone. Whereas this is certainly enough for most in-vehicle-infotainment (ivi) applications it is not relyable enough for other use cases, i.e.:
    – Think of usage based insurance, they will need a relyable internet connection. What happens when you are out of battery?
    – Remote services would only work when the cellphone is in the car (not so remote in this case)
    I thing that this German internet company gets some concepts of this new digital playground right:

    We’ll see how it goes…

  3. Help me understand why would I need to lock in a wireless provider to a car? can’t I dock my phone or pair my phone to the display screen on the car I am driving to leverage any telementry data or service that my connected car would provide?? Data and access is all driven from my phone – car is just a display screen (like a connected TV doing GoogleCast)

    usage based insurance, dynamic traffic etc can all be channelized via my paired phone isn’t it??

    i guess I am failing to understand what is the incremental benefit here in locking a service provider to a car – only thing I can think about is tracking my lost car just like I’d track my lost phone. thats alone is not compelling enough…

  4. The average phone is trashed after 2 years. The average car lasts much longer. My car is now approaching 12 years.

    My friend’s VW has a non-functional Onstar unit because it was Analog-Cellular-Based, so even if he wanted to pay for the service, it isn’t available.

    At least the CD based GPS system based in the dashboard of my vehicle still works. If it was based on the mobile technology of the day, I’d have a blank screen taking up a large portion of my console.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Wim,

      Yep vehicle embedded technology is already behind smartphone technology because of cars much longer development cycles. And then that technology gets locked in to for the life of the car. Companies like Nvidia are working on modular systems in which you could replace the processors in your car, and I imagine the M2M industry is doing the same with radio chips. But yeah, it’s not like your gonna get those upgrades for free.

      There are definitely two approaches here. Ford for instance is building Sync around the smartphone, which to some extent allows your car’s app features to progress with your devices. GM seems to be taking a much more car-centric approach, which initially promises more sophisticated apps that can integrate with much more than a car’s speaker system and display, but as you point out a system like that can become obsolete very quickly.

  5. Eyemahsource

    Car manufacturers are quite insane to approach the problem this way. Why assume that all GM owners prefer AT&T or that VW owners will prefer Verizon. Why assume I want Android or Microsoft or iOS. Just give me a shelf in the car with USB and Bluetooth and WiFi plus amplifier and speaker and save me cost by allowing customer choice on which phone or tablet to use as the source device. Otherwise I am doomed to suffer “redundantitis” and tyranny of no meaningful choice plus waste of money. These points are aside from the fact that these source devices are the primary reason a thief would break the window. With a mobile device I take the device, save it from 160 heat, and naturally keep it with me. I have long since concluded that the automotive industry, as a whole, are incapable of rational thought.

  6. Aoyagi Aichou

    Nope, I’m not buying a car that has any kind of connectivity like that, though I assume that will leave me with only old cars since neither corporations nor consumers value individual privacy anymore.

  7. Mike Johnston

    We have to keep the economy rolling. The more one off devices we make that don’t work with other devices the more we produce. Maybe we will soon adopt the same thing with cars. They will still work in 2 years but nobody will fix them and you get a deduction to upgrade to the new version…

  8. They should let us offload the data onto wifi so we can tether to our phones and use our existing data plans. Better yet, run the services off the phone and use the car is the interface.
    We upgrade our phones more than we upgrade cars

    • Tesla does this. As of the 5.0 software for the Model S, you can tether to your phone via Wifi. So much better. The car still uses 3G for all the software updates as far as I can tell, but maps and streaming services can go through your phone if you wish. This is so much better than waiting for the glacially slow cycle of improvement that the auto industry usually moves at.

    • The article was a little vague here, but the issue seems to be that the devices only broadcast on certain frequency bands. Different carriers, different bands. No unlock will fix that.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Tom, in order to use LTE these modules will take SIM cards, but that doesn’t mean drivers will have access to them or that you can unlock them. The bigger issue too is many of the services you get with your car — for instance OnStar telematics in GM vehicles — will be provided over AT&T’s networks, not others.

    • Derek Kerton

      Yes, but SIM modules will be unaccessible by the user, embedded in the car somewhere. This is for the following valid, and annoying reasons:
      – specifically hardened modules for vibration, heat, and longevity
      – because a deal was struck with AT&T and lock-in is part of the deal
      – because they want to control the UX, and if they let you put in a card from a regional network, it may degrade the coverage and service
      – because of the frequency and modulation differences among carriers, as mentioned