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Why Your Next Car Is Likely to Have Its Own Cell Service

Emergencies, autonomous vehicles and over-the-air software updates are all reasons why vehicles are getting their own cellular connections.


Cars are likely to have their own wireless connections in the next few years, but given the fact that most people already have smartphones, why would anyone need wireless service in their car?

There are at least three reasons why cellular connections in cars are definitely going to be a thing, despite the rise of car-to-phone connections like CarPlay and Android.

1. It can help in breakdowns and emergencies.

This is the oldest reason to have a cellphone connection. General Motors, under the OnStar brand, has been including cellular connectivity cars for two decades, starting with the first OnStar-equipped Cadillacs that hit the roads in 1996.

OnStar’s built-in cellular connection let drivers push a button and summon help, while GPS told first responders exactly where the vehicle in trouble was located.

Today’s safety systems can do all that, plus send an alert even when a driver is incapacitated and also send more detailed information on the vehicle’s status, such as whether the airbag deployed. Cellular connections can also be used to slow down a stolen car or send diagnostic information to a mechanic providing roadside assistance.

2. It’s always there.

Yes, you have a cellphone with you nearly all the time. But nearly all the time isn’t all the time. Plus, when you leave the car, so does your cellphone. Having connectivity in the car allows features like checking where your car is parked, monitoring fuel or battery levels from afar as well as the ability to start your car remotely, a helpful feature in cold weather.

3. It helps with autonomous/self-driving features.

Adding autonomous capabilities to cars often necessitates the need for the car to get fresh access to maps or other data, often in real time. Cars will be able to get and share data with other cars but that depends on such a connection being always available.

So you are likely to see a lot more cars coming with cellular connections. Not everyone will want to pay an extra 10 or 20 bucks to hook their car up to their already hefty cellphone bill, but plenty will.

A growing market

Analysts estimate there are 24 million cars on the road today with such connections, only two-thirds of which are active users of the connectivity. But that number is seen growing to 220 million connected cars by 2020, with at least half of those being actively used, according to BI Intelligence.

Carmakers today are in various stages of adding connected features. GM has been the most aggressive, adding 4G LTE to dozens of vehicles, while Ford is just now adding it to its first model, the 2017 Escape.

The move could help the carmakers add some much-needed revenue to fund what is likely to be a costly battle against Apple and Google to add technology and autonomous abilities to cars. GM has said that the addition of cell service could add $350 million in profits over three years’ time.

AT&T is leading the way among carriers, with deals in place with nine carmakers and six million cars on the road using its network. Verizon and Sprint also have efforts in this area, including Verizon’s Hum service, which allows owners of existing cars to add a connection that can be used both for roadside assistance and diagnostic help.

“Really, the car is becoming a smartphone with four wheels,” AT&T Mobile CEO Glenn Lurie said at last year’s Code/Mobile conference. “And we’re pretty good at this smartphone thing.”

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