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

NEWS ANALYSIS: General Motors will start delivering cars and trucks with an integrated WiFi hotspot that links to AT&T’s LTE network. Both companies think it’s a good idea. But will it end up another cause of dangerously distracted driving?

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.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...