Transport Cars

Drivers Will Soon Have Access to High-Speed Wi-Fi in General Motors Cars

Jan 06, 2014 1:00 pm

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Critics are concerned about safety, but car manufacturers see the opportunity for profits from infotainment and safety services.

— Samantha Shankman

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General Motors Co. is in discussions with Chinese telecommunications companies about providing 4G high-speed cellular data service in its vehicles.

GM, which will begin offering AT&T Inc.’s 4G LTE in select Chevrolet models in the second quarter in the U.S. and Canada, wants to select a carrier in China by year’s end, said Mary Chan, president of GM’s global connected customer, in a telephone interview.

Introducing 4G to its largest market — and the world’s largest for new cars — would build on GM’s efforts to refashion its OnStar communication service into a high-tech infotainment system and open new money-making opportunities. Detroit-based GM has more than 6.5 million OnStar subscribers, about 600,000 of them in China.

“We’ve got specific requirements around OnStar services on LTE that we want to be made available,” Chan said. “It is safe to say that we’ll get China out there ahead of Europe.”

The automaker said in a statement today that models including the Malibu and the Impala sedans will be among the first to get 4G in North America, and that GM will make special applications available through the Chevrolet AppShop. The statement was issued just before the opening of the annual International Consumer Electronics Show, which is being held in Las Vegas this week.

Selection Process

While China’s cellular network isn’t as advanced as the one in the U.S., it’s moving in that direction. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology last month awarded approval to start commercial services for 4G to China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom. The government didn’t say when services using the TD-LTE standard will begin.

Entering China with 4G connected vehicles “is a function around the timing of the network and the capability of the network,” Chan said. “We’re working through our selection process. We will certainly work toward the goal to make sure that this year we wrap up on the selection process.”

GM has issued requests for proposals to carriers in China, she said.

The country is expected to move quickly to roll out 4G, said Mark Boyadjis, an analyst with IHS Automotive.

“They don’t have any devices on TD-LTE in China yet, smartphones or cars, but that’s not to say that it won’t be relatively quick,” he said. “These are big money players at the helm.”

Long-Term Evolution

GM Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson, a former telecom executive who is retiring this month to care for his sick wife, pushed for the rapid introduction of faster data services in the automaker’s vehicles. The company in February announced the deal with AT&T to put 4G LTE service in most 2015 model-year vehicles in the U.S. and Canada.

LTE, for long-term evolution, is a fourth-generation technology that’s faster than third-generation, or 3G, which itself is faster than OnStar’s current 2G connection. LTE allows users to load videos and stream music as much as 10 times faster than 3G, according to GM.

In today’s announcement, GM said the Chevrolet AppShop will be available on select 2015 models in the U.S. and Canada. It will provide various apps, such as ones offered by iHeartRadio, the Weather Channel and NPR, that have, in some cases, been adapted for use in the vehicle.

Rolling Hotspots

GM’s 4G-enabled vehicles will allow for built-in wifi hotspots that can connect personal electronic devices, such as tablets and smartphones, to the high-speed Internet. The service will be useful for a variety of people from construction workers in their trucks to families on camping trips, Alan Batey, head of the Chevrolet brand, said in a telephone interview.

“4G is something that other brands have talked about but never really on the scale that we’re talking about here, he said. “It’s normally in niche products, very high-end, sort of luxury products. Obviously what we’re going to announce is a very comprehensive rollout and our plan is to take it to everything from our minicar, the Spark, right through to our Corvette sports car.

While GM hasn’t announced pricing for 4G in its vehicles in North America, the automaker said AT&T customers will be able to add their 4G-enabled GM vehicles to their mobile share plans.

Non-AT&T customers will be able to buy data services through OnStar or purchase it directly from AT&T, Chan said. Customers will be able to turn on 4G for short periods, such a family vacation, she said.

“There are a number of options available to our customers,” she said. “We want to make that purchase experience seamless and simple, intuitive inside our vehicle.”

Editors: Anne Reifenberg and Jamie Butters.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tim Higgins in Southfield, Michigan, at thiggins21@bloomberg.net. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jamie Butters at jbutters@bloomberg.net.

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