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Connectivity Cars: A New Generation With Built-in WiFi Hot-Spots

GM is launching 4G LTE service for the new Chevrolet Malibu sedan, adding a wide range of additional models before the end of the year.

We live in a connected world. It’s rare to go anywhere without finding people staring into their smartphones. So, it should seem only natural that automakers are getting set to launch a new era of connected automobiles that can serve up their own WiFi hot-spots.

General Motors will join the club next month when it officially launches 4G LTE service for the new Chevrolet Malibu sedan, adding a wide range of additional models before the end of the year. It joins a growing list of manufacturers –including Audi and Chrysler’s Ram brand -- who currently offer, or will soon add, 4G connectivity in their own products.

“We’re excited to give millions of customers an opportunity to explore the technology,” said Mary Chan, president of GM’s OnStar subsidiary operating the maker’s 4G service and which will initially offer a three-month free trial.

Some observers question precisely whom the technology will appeal to, and it’s perhaps no surprise that initial OnStar marketing illustrates the potential benefits for parents with children who can now be kept happy in the back seat watching online movies, texting or playing online games with friends.

The new GM service was, perhaps not surprisingly, initiated under former GM CEO Dan Akerson, a long-time telecomm industry executive, who announced a partnership with AT&T. The communications giant will allow its existing customers to bundle the in-car service with their existing accounts, and non-AT&T users will be allowed to subscribe separately.

The OnStar service will be offered with varying levels of data, monthly fees running from $10 to $50 a month, though motorists can alternately opt to buy a set amount of data usage over a 12-month period, ranging from $5 to $200.

Skeptics question the appeal of establishing a fixed WiFi hot-spot in a vehicle when anyone can alternately sign up for mobile 4G service with a range of vendors, including Sprint, TMobile, Verizon, as well as AT&T, using card-sized devices that can be taken anywhere. And many new smartphones, including the Apple iPhone, can be turned into WiFi hot-spots for an additional fee.

GM and other makers contend they have an advantage in that their built-in 4G systems will utilize an external antenna that ensures improved signal strength when compared to a portable hot-spot that might be sitting in the cup-holder or a pocket inside a largely steel vehicle.

But a similar claim didn’t do much to enhance the appeal of built-in cellphone systems that were pitched as the latest-and-greatest technology two decades ago. Fixed, in-car phones also had significantly stronger radio signals, meaning greater range and fewer dropped connections, but eventually lost out to handheld phones.

Makers like GM are still betting that consumers will be happy to have a built-in data connection while they travel – something that could also appeal to commuters, especially those carpooling who want to get work done on the way to the office.

But while access to e-mail, news, music and movies may be the marketing pitch, the technology eventually will offer automakers, as much as auto buyers, some big benefits.

Tesla, for example, has an in-car data link it can use to update the extensive software systems in its vehicle – which boasts a laptop computer-sized LCD display atop the center console that handles virtually all vehicle functions.

The ability to remotely reprogram a car’s software could be a big plus in the event of a recall, for example, like the one Ford just announced due to a mis-programmed rollover airbag system. Using such a remote link would cost next to nothing, especially when compared to having to pay dealers to handle the recall, as is now the case. That would also help boost the number of vehicles that actually get the fix. Today, as much as a third or more of motorists fail to take their cars in for such repairs.

The new OnStar 4G system will eventually be offered on the vast majority of products GM’s four U.S. brands offer, from the Chevrolet Corvette sports car to the Cadillac XTS luxury sedan.

Chrysler was one of the first to introduce in-car WiFi capabilities on its Ram pickup line, anticipating an appeal for truckers who want the ability to stay connected at a work site.

Audi has also been rolling out the technology on a variety of models, including its new A3 compact luxury line. The A3 will adopt another concept from the consumer electronics world, meanwhile. A number of key components in its infotainment system, including the critical video driver hardware, has been made plug-n-play. That means that in years ahead, a motorist won’t be saddled with outdated technology but will be able to purchase an update, much like consumers can do today with an older computer.

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