Welcome to the future, where we care as much about how fast a new car can download data as we do about how fast it can go. This turning point comes courtesy of General Motors, which announced today that late next year most of the cars and trucks it sells in the United States will come with AT&T 4G cellular service built in — which could be used for anything from mobile WiFi to streaming video. AT&T's chief says cars will soon be "just a big smartphone on wheels," which should set off a few alarms among distracted driving crusaders.
GM has long had cellular service built into its vehicles via OnStar, but that setup used Verizon's older 2G system — which didn't allow for voice and data calls simultaneously, and couldn't provide as much data as a typical driver's cell phone. Luxury automakers — Audi, BMW and Tesla — have already been selling models with cellular data connections for dashboard apps; Audi and Chrysler have planned mobile WiFi rollouts, allowing up to 8 passengers to surf and ride.
But those efforts pale to the scale of the shift GM described today, saying that most 2015 models sold by Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC in the United States and Canada would come with a 4G LTE AT&T receiver, which should provide about 10 times faster data than a 3G receiver. "Should" being a key term, because as anyone who's ever had a cellphone knows, data service remains hit-or-miss in many areas, from rural roads to cities where the airwaves grow overloaded for several hours a day. (AT&T vowed it would be ready for the extra business.)
Aside from pitching gadgets like mobile WiFi or video, the step also lets GM save costs by handling vehiclular software updates over the air rather than requiring owners to drop into dealerships. But the move will also raise questions among safety advocates who claim data distractions are causing a greater share of accidents; the National Transportation Safety Board has even called for an all-out ban on cellphones and data use while driving.
GM emphasized the potential safety benefits of more connected vehicles, and automakers contend having the car act as the data center for navigation, phone and messages is far safer than drivers steering with one hand while thumb-typing on their iPhones in another. But with the advent of WiFi hotspots on wheels in mainstream vehicles, the question may turn out to be not whether gadgets distract us too much from driving, but how driving distracts us from staying online, all the time.