GM, AT&T Plan WiFi-Enabled Vehicles Using LTE Network

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-02-25

GM, AT&T Plan WiFi-Enabled Vehicles Using LTE Network

The chances are pretty good that your late model car can now communicate with your phone. A large percentage of cars built in the last decade have Bluetooth built into the car’s entertainment system to allow you to make hands-free calls, a process theoretically safer than holding the phone to your ear while your drive. Many of those cars also have the ability to communicate with their makers’ servers to schedule maintenance or request roadside assistance.

But General Motors and AT&T are upping the ante. GM, already equips its cars with cellular connections for its OnStar navigation and concierge system. With the current version of OnStar, GM operators can give you turn-by-turn directions, unlock your car when you’ve left the keys inside and provide guidance to the police when your car is stolen. Over the years, OnStar has migrated from analog cell services to digital, and now it’s moving to LTE.

What’s different is that along with the LTE connection, GM and AT&T are offering some new services, most notable of which is a WiFi hotspot. But there are a number of other uses that the companies have in mind, including streaming entertainment, software updates, traffic information and perhaps in-car television that actually works. To accomplish all of this, your car would need to have a data plan, just like the one you have for your iPad.

What’s more, GM imagines that the new LTE service could enable car-to-car communications (maybe as a way to avoid accidents?) and deliver a range of APIs so that developers could come up with new types of mobile apps.

AT&T is seeing the new in-vehicle LTE connection as a way to enable in-car WiFi hotspots. This means that you could use your laptop to check your email just as you do with your smartphone now, except in a much more distracting way. But perhaps it will also enable all of those T-Mobile users with their voice-over-WiFi phones to make calls over AT&T’s data network.

In reality, it’s hard to foresee how people who drive GM cars will get a lot of direct benefit out of a WiFi-enabled car. It’s not going to help them make phone calls more easily and most cars are already equipped with some of the other envisioned services such as navigation screens. It’s possible that the GM system could perform Siri-like functions such as using voice recognition to find the cheapest gas within range when you’re getting low, or maybe find a top-rated drive-thru restaurant when you’re on trips.

GM, AT&T Plan WiFi-Enabled Vehicles Using LTE Network

A more likely use may probably be as a way to pacify back-seat passengers with movies or other video entertainment, much like current cars have DVD players and screens to mollify the kids in back who otherwise would be asking if they’re there yet.

Just imagine how much data you could consume when running around town while the kids consume Dora the Explorer or Sesame Street. You could find that your new Chevy Tahoe costs more in data than it does in $4.50 per gallon gas. But it could be worse. Imagine your teenage son in the back finding “alternative content” that succeeds in getting you pulled over when the cops see what he’s watching. Add the fines to the data charges and driving around town could get expensive.

Hopefully, the folks at GM will also use the LTE connection for one of the things it’s really good at, which is machine-to-machine communications. Equipping the car with the ability to provide real-time telemetry could go a long way towards catching problems before they become breakdowns. Likewise, an LTE connection could improve on something that’s already available, which is to communicate service needs to the manufacturer.

The way this currently works, at least on my car, is that the car’s computer uses its Bluetooth connection to my phone to contact the company’s servers in the case that the computer discovers something’s amiss. This recently happened when my car, an Acura RDX discovered a tire pressure fault in the Tire Pressure Management System. The car sent a report to Acura, and in addition downloaded a verbal explanation of what was happening so that I wouldn’t have to stop and read it on a screen.

GM’s LTE-based management system as the company envisions it would do much the same thing. And you’d probably get same message I did when it happened—to stop the car, get out and make sure the tires still had air in them before continuing.

Hopefully such a system could be somewhat more useful since it would have more bandwidth available. Perhaps it would display a video on the car’s LCD screen showing  you what a flat tire looks like, and how to kick the tires to see if they felt filled. If you’re lucky, the system might provide software updates to the navigation system instead of a warning that your tire might be flat. But both are useful and if planned well can provide features you can’t do now with your phone.

Clearly when this feature is launched, we’ll request a review model of a 2015 Corvette for a report in eWEEK. It’s important to run a thorough hands-on test, after all.

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