If you’re worried about in-car distractions getting worse and not better, you’re not going to like this news. GM announced today that in a partnership between OnStar and AT&T, it will install 4G LTE hotspots in its Chevrolet, GMC, Cadillac, and Buick vehicles sold in the U.S. and Canada starting in 2014, with additional global carrier partners coming online later. LTE is roughly 10 times faster than the 3G technology prevalent in other manufacturers’ cars with built-in hotspots.
The partnership itself is a shift for GM; since OnStar’s beginnings in 1996, the company has partnered with AT&T’s chief U.S. rival, Verizon Wireless for in-car connectivity. Verizon Wireless remains the largest U.S. carrier in terms of subscriptions, with AT&T a fairly close second place.
Data plans will allow owners to connect devices (cell phones, tablets, laptops, wifi-enabled gaming devices, etc.) to the car’s hotspot connection. Presumably, owners will be able to use a shared data plan from AT&T to support their car’s connectivity, and share a single data allowance among all of their 3G/4G/LTE-enabled devices, similar to the way Verizon customers have been able to share a single pool of minutes between their mobile phone and their built-in OnStar phone minutes.
The hotspot hardware will be integrated with the vehicles’ electrical systems, with an external antenna to maximize coverage. Speaking from experience of using OnStar in the same areas as a cell phone connected to the car via Bluetooth, OnStar works better in far more places than a handheld phone can thanks to its external antenna.
AT&T’s LTE network is still in its infancy in the U.S. Right now, AT&T has “4G” coverage (which is really 3G HSPA+; sort of 3.5G speeds) covering 288 million people, but LTE only is in 141 markets. In contrast, Verizon’s LTE network currently spans an impressive 480 markets. As Verizon Wireless’ helpfully points out, its LTE network covers 88% of the U.S. population while AT&T’s covers just 60%, but AT&T is rapidly working to fill out its network. In Pennsylvania where Autosavant is based, there were just two cities with AT&T LTE coverage at the iPhone 5’s launch (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh); now there are eight.
While the potential for driver distraction is enormous, there are also some potential benefits to having an Internet-connected car. Weather and traffic data from the likes of The Weather Channel, Google, or Waze could provide real-time updates on a car’s MyLink touchscreen. The current subscription-only XM NavTraffic service that is available in some GM navigation systems is pathetic; not only is it expensive ($3.99 per month extra) but it is missing all but the major roads. I travel daily on a four-lane limited-access U.S. highway and it’s not covered by NavTraffic. That’s why I’m a huge fan of Waze, which provides better traffic and accident data, for free.
Further into the future, this could be a beachhead for an intelligent transportation network; that is, C2C (car to car) communication. I’m not talking about a driver sending a “hurry up!!” message to the slowpoke in the left lane, but the cars themselves communicating with one another about potential issues/accidents, which could improve traffic flow (which saves fuel and time) and could reduce accidents and injuries, which everyone should be able to get behind. (Yes, there of course would be privacy concerns that are essential to safeguard carefully in any such system, but that’s a conversation for another day).
In the meantime, we look forward to playing Words With Friends as a passenger in a 2014 model-year GM vehicle thanks to the car’s mobile hotspot.