Last week, General Motors invited me to a press event at which it showed off some new Buicks. Normally, such events involve driving new cars. But when we hit the road during this one, I willingly sat in the back seat and fooled around with my phone and tablet–because the primary purpose of the event was to demonstrate the 4G LTE broadband and Wi-Fi hotspot features built into the cars.
Across its brands, GM is being particularly aggressive about rolling out in-vehicle LTE connectivity. Most Buick models, for instance, are getting it now; all of them will have it by the 2016 model year. No other company has announced plans to put LTE into so many vehicles so soon.
GM is applying its venerable OnStar brand to its LTE service, and tying it in with existing OnStar services such as crash response and the ability to have a live OnStar rep download turn-by-turn driving directions to your car’s navigation system. Behind the scenes, the LTE is powered by AT&T.
A Buick with LTE is a four-wheeled hotspot: It can share its broadband wirelessly with up to seven devices, such as phones, tablets, and laptops. The driver won’t be using any of those gadgets on the road–right?–so the hotspot feature is of particular interest to passengers, who can use it to do stuff such as watch video or play games. (It does work whenever the car is turned on, and is accessible outside the cabin as well as inside; at one point, I connected while I was having lunch in a tent about twenty yards from the car.)
Another thing which built-in LTE should come in handy for is powering apps that run on the car’s in-dash touchscreen information/entertainment system, such as streaming audio services. GM says that such offerings are on the way. But for now, even the version of Pandora which Buicks have can’t tap into the OnStar LTE; instead, it must piggyback on your smartphone’s data connection.
Speaking of smartphones: When I told people that I was trying out a Buick with LTE and hotspot capability, several folks had the same question. Why would you want that when you can just tether devices to a smartphone with LTE and hotspot features–ones you’re already paying for?
There’s actually an easy answer to that. The LTE built into a car uses a beefy antenna on the roof, vs. the dinky one on your phone; your phone’s antenna is further hobbled by being inside your vehicle rather than outside it. GM says that the car can therefore deliver more robust reception than you’ll get on your phone.
My highly informal experiments seemed to bear this out. As we tooled around the San Francisco Bay Area’s Highway 280 during a test drive of a Buick LaCrosse, with me in back, I tried streaming Netflix on my iPad and Google Play video on my Nexus 5 phone, sometimes using their built-in AT&T LTE and sometimes connecting to the car’s hotspot. Much of the time, it worked well no matter which connection I was on. But on an isolated stretch of highway, the mobile devices’ LTE fell to one bar of coverage, and the streaming conked out. When I switched to the Buick’s LTE, I could stream hiccup-free on both devices at once.
There are other reasons why you might prefer to use the car’s hotspot than to tether devices to your phone. Tethering is a notorious battery hog; it requires you to turn it on and fiddle with the settings; in my experience with a variety of devices, it sometimes doesn’t work at all, even when the signal strength is fine. If the automobile’s hotspot just works, it would be a more pleasant way to put a tablet or laptop online than tethering it to a phone.
Then there’s the question of cost. Judging whether built-in LTE is worth the dough is a decision about ongoing data fees, not the up-front expense for the hardware: GM is building LTE in as standard equipment in part because it uses the data connection for the newest version of its OnStar services, which it charges at least $20 a month or $200 a year for.
The company offers a variety of data packages starting at $5 and aimed at everyone from people who want to use data rarely and parsimoniously to those who want to gorge on it. Some tiers cost the same whether or not you subscribe to an OnStar plan; others are the same with or without OnStar.
Here’s GM’s summary of the options:
By the standards of LTE data, these offerings seem competitively priced. But if you’re an AT&T customer and plan to use your car’s LTE every month, it probably makes more sense to put your Buick on your AT&T shared-data plan; that does’t require you to subscribe to OnStar, costs $10 a month and gives your car access to the pooled data you’re already paying for.
Bottom line: Whether you buy your data from GM or AT&T, the cost could add up quickly. And streaming video in particular could get unaffordable fast.
Having recently bought a car with no built-in LTE–a Ford Focus–I went to GM’s event a tad concerned that I’d find the technology so impressive that I’d suffer from buyer’s remorse. That didn’t happen. Unless you regularly travel with a car full of pals equipped with Wi-Fi gizmos–and can afford to supply them with gobs of data–LTE as it exists right now in these Buicks isn’t that a huge deal.
Still, I’m glad that the GM is moving to make LTE a standard feature, and hope that other auto makers follow its lead. Once millions of cars have built-in broadband, it should lead to apps, services, and features which take advantage of it in new ways. Maybe by the time I’m ready to replace my Focus, it’ll have evolved into essential equipment.