AT&T, With Audi Deal, to Begin Connecting Cars to Mobile Share Plans

Among AT&T's CES connected car announcements was a deal with Audi. Drivers will able to, like a tablet, add the 2015 A3 to their data plans.

Audi 4G LTE

AT&T's President of Emerging Enterprises and Partnerships Organization Glenn Lurie announced on the opening day of the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that AT&T plans to "lead the future of the connected car."

AT&T then went on to show how it intends to do this.

It announced the creation of a connected car mobile platform, AT&T Drive, and of a 5,000-square-foot hands-on innovation center in Atlanta, the AT&T Drive Studio. And then it shared that it has signed deals with two automakers, Tesla and Audi. In the case of the latter, AT&T will enter new territory, for the first time allowing customers to add their cars to their Mobile Share plans, essentially treating the Audi A3 like another device.

The 2015 Audi A3 sedan will launch with the latest version of Audi Connect, a solution that offers a WiFi connection to up to eight passenger devices and provides the driver, via a display that neatly folds out of the dash, access to information that includes Google Earth 3D satellite imagery; weather information; more than 7,000 online radio stations; guidance on where to find the cheapest gas prices; and read-aloud news headlines and Facebook and Twitter alerts.

Audi Connect isn't new. Last April Audi began offering in-car WiFi over the T-Mobile network for potentially as little as $15 a month. With the new A3, AT&T, drivers now have the option of 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) speeds.

"Offering drivers a 4G LTE connection will provide the fastest in-vehicle connection available and significantly enhance the infotainment experience," Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, said in a Jan. 6 statement.

AT&T's Lurie added that the partnership and AT&T's "fastest and most reliable LTE network" will allow the pair to "drastically improve the in-car experience."

(Last year, when AT&T signed a deal to put LTE in GM vehicles in 2014, GM's Global Connected Consumer division president said LTE in cars will enhance "virtually every aspect of the driving and riding experience.")

The details of the Tesla deal are that as part of a "multi-year" agreement, AT&T will power Tesla's "remote engine diagnostics, telematics and industry-leading infotainment features such as Internet radio, Web browsing, live traffic, weather and navigation, all accessed through the 17-inch touch-screen," the pair said in a Jan. 7 statement.

While Tesla will pick up the tab for its car's connectivity features, Audi is letting drivers make the call. People who purchase a new vehicle with Audi Connect will receive a free six-month trial period that includes access to all services—WiFi and LTE. After the trial, owners of the A3 can choose to purchase the whole package, just WiFi or a data plan from AT&T.

Anupam Malhotra, senior manager of Connected Vehicles at Audi of America, told eWEEK that AT&T data plans and pricing information are expected to be announced in the "near future." Additionally, he said, "Audi and AT&T will launch a Mobile Share data plan in the summer of 2014 that will allow the customer to add their vehicle data plan to an existing AT&T smartphone or tablet data plan."

How much data a customer or a family needs (or realistically uses) is already a point of concern or frustration in some families, and connectivity in the car is likely to raise some new questions. When does it make sense to use LTE instead of WiFi? How will data use in the car—whether for turn-by-turn driving directions or letting a backseat passenger pass the ride by watching videos—affect a phone bill?

Malhotra said such concerns "will be addressed." But for now, he added, all Audi can say is that "AT&T data plans and pricing information are expected to be announced in the near future."

As for whom to call when there's an issue, Malhotra said there will be a single help line, connecting customers to both Audi and AT&T.