Most people are used to having constant connectivity via computers, smartphones and tablets, and with it, the ability to instantly find everything from the latest worldwide news to local services. Now this kind of connectivity is coming to cars, in part so that drivers don't turn to distracting portable devices while they're behind the wheel.
"We all have a connected lifestyle, and that extends into the vehicle," said Mark Boyadjis, a senior analyst of automotive infotainment at IHS. "When we're out and about, connectivity for communication, entertainment and navigation is even more important."
Connectivity Through a Cellular Network
Most new cars now offer some form of connectivity through a cellular network and in-dash apps that can stream Internet radio stations through the stereo or send a destination found via local search to an onboard navigation system. Some even allow drivers to post their status on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
We all know that a computer, tablet or smartphone needs a way to connect to the Internet, and that this usually requires some sort of monthly data fee or subscription. But there's no one standard for how a car connects to the "Cloud," which can lead to confusion and perhaps frustration after the car purchase.
The type of connectivity varies among car brands. The way owners will pay for the data they'll use isn't uniform, either. These matters aren't something a car salesperson is likely to point out when going over the features of a vehicle. So before you buy a car, it's important to understand:
- The various forms of vehicle connectivity. There are three: embedded, "brought in" and hybrid.
- The length of any free-trial data plan that comes with a car.
- What it will cost if you want to keep connected features flowing after the trial period, which generally last a few months. After the free trial period, packages and prices vary. Read our story about saving money on connected-car subscriptions.
- The car's interface for these features, meaning the screen and other controls used to access them.
Embedded Systems and 4G Connectivity
It's nothing new for cars to connect to the Cloud through the same cellular networks used for portable phones. General Motors' OnStar introduced this concept almost 20 years ago by using an embedded cellular modem and charging a car owner a monthly fee for an always-on connection. Other automakers followed suit.
So-called "telematics" systems like OnStar have traditionally provided features such as automatic crash notification and door unlocking. These things don't require heavy and constant data usage. But vehicle owners have come to expect the kind of connected features in cars that they get on their smartphones and tablets. And so automakers are adding more data capability. They also have changed how a driver pays for data.
GM and Audi introduced 4G connectivity via AT&;T in 2014 to create a Wi-Fi hot spot in cars. The Audi A3, for example, uses the faster connection to download data for the car navigation system's Google Earth and Google Street View mapping modes. While both BMW and Mercedes-Benz still use onboard 3G modems for Google Street View and other features, most automakers will eventually add 4G capability and some form of embedded connectivity.
"We see 4G being on the short-term road map for most automakers," said Andrew Hard, a director at the research firm SBD. "When OnStar launched it, they put huge marketing pressure on other automakers."
"The cost-benefit ratio is at a point that it makes sense for 4G to be added," Boyadjis said. "And consumers recognize it as a benefit."
The costs of embedded connectivity vary. It will cost you $99 for six months or 5GB of data with the Audi Connect system, for example. You'll pay $14 a month for the Mercedes-Benz Apps feature of the Mercedes-Benz mbrace system, although this is on top of the $280 a year for the mbrace telematics system that provides the connection for Mercedes-Benz Apps. You can see that it's important to find out what the recurring cost for connectivity and features will be.
Connections That Are Brought in
Some systems rely solely on a driver's smartphone to provide a connection to the Cloud. Toyota's Entune system is one such "brought-in" or tethered system, which connects a driver's smartphone via Bluetooth or USB.
Entune has one of the most extensive ranges of apps available from any automaker, including Pandora and iHeartRadio for streaming music and Bing and Yelp for local search. OpenTable is there for finding and making restaurants reservations, and there's even Facebook Places for "checking in" at a location.
The brought-in systems also rely on a device's data plan. So while there's no extra data charge for the car, drivers may incur data charges from their smartphone's wireless carrier.
During a 300-mile roundtrip drive from Los Angeles to San Diego, for example, I measured data while listening to Pandora Internet radio and using a navigation app. I burned through about 136MB of data. Multiply that over a month and, depending on the limits of your data plan, you could go over your limit and pay extra.
One downside of the brought-in approach is that without a modem that's built into the car, there's no way to connect to the car remotely through a smartphone app.
"Embedded systems enable you to access your car when you're not near it and that enables certain services that you just can't do with a brought-in connection," Boyadjis said. These include such features as being able to lock or unlock the doors or find a car on a map. "On the flip side, brought-in connections sometimes allow for more diverse app content," he said.
The Hybrid Connection
A third kind of connectivity is known as a hybrid approach since it combines an embedded modem with a smartphone's brought-in connectivity. In the hybrid approach, critical systems such as automatic crash notification and remote features can be handled by the vehicle's embedded modem, while a brought-in smartphone performs such connected services as Internet radio and local search.
An example of this approach is the UConnect system, which is available in Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep and Ram vehicles. An embedded modem that runs on Sprint's 3G network runs the telematics features and a Yelp local search app. It also provides a Wi-Fi hotspot in a vehicle. A driver's smartphone provides the connection and data for streaming music apps such as Pandora and Aha Radio.
Embedded and brought-in connectivity work best in tandem "because there are significant advantages to each approach," said Boyadjis. He added that a hybrid approach will likely become more common.
"We don't really see automakers sticking with only embedded or tethered in the future," Boyadjis added.
Know and Try Before You Buy
Connectivity is going to become more common in all cars. "It's no longer a niche technology, something reserved for luxury cars," said Boyadjis. "It's really been democratized."
Andrew Hand added that connectivity also allows automakers to add technology to vehicles more quickly and keep up with the pace of change in consumer electronics. "It's a way to fast-track innovation in cars," he said. "It allows a very flexible car that, when it rolls off the assembly line, isn't the final product and can be improved upon."
Boyadjis said a recent survey found that people definitely want connectivity in their cars. They don't really care how the connection is accomplished, however. "What they're looking for are features," he said. They just want the connectivity to work and be straightforward and simple to use.
And yes, it might sound a little geeky to focus on embedded, brought-in or hybrid connectivity when you're car shopping. But when you know how a car connects, you'll have a better understanding of how your go-to features and apps will function when you're on the road — and what you'll be paying for them. Nothing takes the joy out of a new car faster than apps that don't work the way you expect them to or data bills that blindside you. A little research into a new car's connectivity can spare you from disappointment.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.