In the auto industry's biggest move yet towards connected cars, General Motors plans to install wireless 4G data modems on millions of its future vehicles, enabling them to serve as Internet hotspots.
The plan, announced at last week's 2013 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, calls for the giant automaker to embed 4G LTE technology in vehicles across all its brands, starting with Chevrolet, Buick, and GMC in North America, and Opel/Vauxhall in Europe. The hotspot technology could bring new levels of connectivity to many of the six million vehicles GM builds each year -- some as soon as next year.
"You'll be able to get in the back seat with your iPad, go to your hotspot, and do anything that you could do on any other hotspot," Greg Ross, director of business development for GM's Connected Consumer Group, told Design News. "You could do voice calls or you could surf the Internet and watch Netflix in the backseat."
Although technical details are still scarce, GM said last week that it's teaming with AT&T Inc. to equip most of its 2015 models with 4G LTE broadband, a global standard for high-speed data communication in mobile phones. In GM's implementation, the vehicles would incorporate only the data modem, and not the display, battery, or other parts of a 4G phone. Since most vehicles are now sold with seven- or eight-inch displays in the center console, the 4G modem would work in conjunction with those displays.
"Let me be clear about one thing," GM vice chairman Steve Girsky said in a prepared statement at the Mobile World Congress. "The technology will be built in, not brought in. And it won't be phone dependent, either. It doesn't matter what type of smartphone you have."
GM stressed that front seat occupants won't have access to Internet-based video or browsing capabilities, but will still get the advantages of Internet-based navigation, remote vehicle diagnostics, and other features. In the front seat, all applications will have to be non-distracting and appropriate for use by drivers, the automaker said. "You'll have a pipe into the Internet, but I don't foresee the car turning into a laptop on wheels," Thilo Koslowski, vice president and distinguished analyst for Gartner Group, told Design News. "I call it Internet snacking, rather than Internet browsing."
GM foresees the technology as a high-tech extension of its existing OnStar telematics system, which has been offered in GM vehicles for 17 years. As is the case with OnStar's current system, the technology will allow vehicles to be reached when no one is inside, thus enabling remote starts and door-unlock services, as well as airbag deployment detection.
Koslowski added that the embedded technology offers advantages over use of handheld personal phones in the vehicle, since the modules will be able to employ the vehicle's existing antennas and power.
To be sure, GM's move to Internet connectivity isn't the auto industry's first such effort. BMW and Audi have announced similar plans, but not for the production volumes involved in the GM deal.
Some industry observers expressed concerns to Design News about the use of 4G hardware in vehicles that might be on the streets for a decade or more. Because vehicle manufacturers typically work in three- and four-year development cycles, while electronics makers crank out new products in months, analysts fear that older vehicles might eventually end up using outdated technology.
Still, See said GM's announcement will be greeted positively by many consumers who are hungry for more electronics in the vehicle. "People are demanding to be connected," he said. "This announcement is a clear play toward that."