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For six weeks, I’ve been driving the first 4G LTE car model to hit the U.S. market — the 2015 Audi A3, which was chosen to showcase Audi MMI connect technology. Features include navigation with Google Earth and Street View, as well as Sirius Traffic, Wi-Fi hot spot, fuel price, weather, picture navigation, news, parking, flight, travel and event information, even Facebook and Twitter alerts, all on AT&T’s 4G LTE network.
A 2015 World Car of the Year and IIHS Top Safety Pick + Award winner, among other accolades, much has been written about the 2015 Audi A3. However, this is not a car review. This is about my experience setting up, using the connected car features in everyday driving, surprises and misses, and why connected car features and capabilities will play an ever-increasing role in your next car-buying decision. Like me, you may not want to wait any longer to get one.
Setting up the LTE account with [company]AT&T[/company] took a few minutes and was an efficient, easy process. After the trial period, the LTE data plan runs $16.50 per month as a stand-alone – $99 for six months (including 5GB data) – or an additional $10 per month when added to a Mobile Share plan. Nearly everyone is going to renew this service when the trial ends.
Audi’s connected car experience includes the My.Audi website for configuring features and a mobile app (iOS and Android) for syncing and streaming to the onboard MMI connect system. The My.Audi.com website is where you activate and configure MMI features and services, including destinations and access, map updates, RSS feeds, Facebook and Twitter, via widgets, and this can take time. New features may be introduced on the website, via app updates and/or firmware updates to the car’s MMI system via LTE connection (or SD card updates, e.g., map updates).
Navigation with [company]Google[/company] Earth and Google Maps Street View: The smartphone app lets you select an entry from your calendar as an Online Destination, which then syncs with the nav system, letting you select a calendar entry as destination, all in a few clicks and turns. With a calendar address, Online Destination is far easier than voice search, is much faster than entering an address via touchpad, and can thus be a huge timesaver.
Wi-Fi hotspot: The hotspot supports up to eight devices on AT&T’s LTE network, which consistently had a stronger signal than my iPhone.
Sirius Traffic: This alerts you to accidents and detours, but mostly confirms that you’re in heavy traffic after it’s too late. I prefer Waze, which provides far more useful and real-time information to avoid or circumvent traffic. Access to Waze or the full Google Maps–Waze integration cannot come soon enough, and hopefully will be added to Audi Connect, which features several other Google services.
Weather: This may be more valuable on long trips or in places where dramatic weather changes quickly occur, but my personal observation of actual weather was better than the “current weather” on the display.
Picture navigation: Select a picture from hundreds of images, or a smartphone picture, and the app sends the address to the nav system, which then guides you there. In theory, this might be useful, but the interface was buggy, and I couldn’t get the street address from the app to the nav system.
Personalized news: As with other included infotainment services, when you reach a complete stop, you can read a full screen. Lift your foot from the brake, and all but the headline disappears. This might be useful to pass time while parked and waiting, but do not try it in stop-and-go traffic. Then again, if you’re parked and waiting, you will probably be able to find what you’re looking for faster on your smartphone.
Fuel prices: The system displays the lowest nearby gas prices, then guides you to the station you select. Far more valuable, especially when in an unknown area, is an on-screen alert that tells you when fuel is low, then guides you to the closest gas station.
Parking: This helps you find open parking spaces and lots, which can be very helpful in an unfamiliar place. The app also includes a Car Finder, which tells you the last place you left your car and how long it’s been there, and guides you back to your vehicle on a map.
Flight, travel and event information: Useful, as you would expect, but not accessible while the vehicle is moving.
Streaming content: In addition to [company]Pandora[/company], Spotify and other streaming music, you can choose web radio, podcasts and a wide range of content at the AT&T Connect website, My.Audi, the companion app, or on screen. The app provides access to stations all over the world, by genre, topic, country, language, and vicinity, streamed via Bluetooth.
Facebook and Twitter alerts: Listen to tweets messages and update friends and followers of progress, delays, and new arrival times with canned status messages. Or create your own at the My.Audi website. Some will use these services, but so far, I haven’t.
LTE: Signal on AT&T’s LTE network was consistently stronger than the signal on my iPhone 6+ on Verizon. A car is a larger antenna than a smartphone, and makes a better hotspot.
Overall integration: The overall architecture and integration of (1) LTE connectivity, (2) My.Audi web configuration, (3) smartphone app for syncing and streaming, and (4) the vehicle’s MMI system works well. It enables continuing service refinements, new feature introduction, and further integration of IoT, wearables and other services as they become available, all without equipment upgrades, and at a relatively low monthly subscription cost.
Interface: The user interface is intuitive and easy. For example, press one button and your last playlist, podcast, or music stream picks up where it left off, without missing a beat.
Better CDMA experience: Ironically, the lack of simultaneous voice/data on Verizon and Sprint CDMA networks is cured by the Wi-Fi hotspot on AT&T’s LTE network. You can have both.
Manage data costs: If you’re closing in on your data plan limits, turn off cellular data on your smartphone and get all of your data from the car’s Wi-Fi hotspot.
- Needs better traffic alerts and integration, via Waze or other app.
- No OnStar-like crash detection, emergency or crisis assist services.
- No severe weather alerts or notifications.
- Audi convertibles are not equipped with voice recognition, calling or destination setting, forcing manual address entry for destinations not uploadable.
- With all this technology, the A3 (and TT) are the only Audis without standard rearview camera, so that with Google Earth, you can see everything around you, except what’s immediately behind you. (This essential safety feature is mandated on all vehicles by mid-2018.)
A connected car is a smarter car. And from the moment you turn on the ignition, these connected car features really make a difference, from easy loading of destinations, traffic alerts, low-gas warnings that guide you to the nearest station, to the ease and wide range of content easily streamed to your car. A connected car is definitely in your future; Audi’s A3 and the full line of new GM cars have LTE today. Are you ready?
Whitey Bluestein, a 30-year telecom veteran, is a strategic advisor and corporate development executive focused on wholesale, M2M, cloud services, distribution, applications, payments, roaming and connected cars. He is a Gigaom Research analyst, CNBC mobile industry expert and 2013 Mobile Power Player.