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Hands on with General Motors’ OnStar 4G LTE Wi-Fi Hotspot

General Motors is the first carmaker to offer 4G LTE connectivity in the U.S. Using AT&T’s network, it’s already available in several 2015 models, with more on the way.

This a major step forward in the quest to merge car and smartphone, but what’s it actually like when your Wi-Fi hotspot has four wheels and an engine?

GM invited us to try out OnStar 4G LTE and its built-in Wi-Fi hotspot in a 2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe in New York City. While the encounter was brief, everything seems to work as advertised.

Watching videos on a tablet wasn’t a problem, nor was sending directions from a phone to the ATS’ navigation system.

Devices connect like they would with a normal Wi-Fi hotspot. The driver/user just needs to select the car’s SSID and enter a password, which can be set through the OnStar menu on the car’s center-stack screen.

Sitting in the first-floor lounge of the Classic Car Club in Manhattan, the connection demonstrated impressive speed. Watching videos on a tablet wasn’t a problem, nor was sending directions from a phone to the ATS’ navigation system.

In theory, the performance shouldn’t diminish in the real world, as everything is contained within the car. The actual location of the 4G module and associated hardware varies from vehicle to vehicle, but they all sport antennae with more surface area.

Other than the slightly-larger finned antenna, there was no external sign that the ATS was a rolling hotspot.

2015 Cadillac ATS center console

So, if you absolutely need to download that cat video right now, just stand close to the Cadillac with the big fin on its roof, and hope the owner hasn’t set a password.

The built-in Wi-Fi hotspot can handle up to seven devices, and stays on as long as the car is running. It would be interesting to actually have that many running at the same time (in a larger car, obviously) but that wasn’t possible here.

Automotive assimilation

For General Motors, offering 4G in cars is more than a way to hook customers who care more about screen resolution than horsepower. It’s a way to get them to view cars in the same context as all of their digital devices.

The technology blurs the line between car and phone, creating a hybrid of steel, rubber, silicon, and chrome plastic that’s worthy of the Borg.

Distracted driving is a major issue for policymakers and carmakers alike, and GM’s solution is to let people use their phones… without touching them.

Each 4G-equipped car gets five years of OnStar’s basic plan, which includes an updated version of the RemoteLink app. This essentially turns the driver’s phone into a key fob, allowing them to remotely start the engine, lock and unlock the doors, honk the horn, and flash the lights.

The basic plan also includes monthly diagnostic updates and the ability to notify dealers when the car is due for routine maintenance. This is either a way to get average buyers to take care of their cars, or a way to get them into dealer service departments more often, depending on how cynical you are.

While 4G allows drivers to take control of their cars while they are parked, the roles reverse once said drivers get behind the wheel.

Distracted driving is a major issue for policymakers and carmakers alike, and GM’s solution is to let people use their phones… without touching them.

Systems like Siri Eyes Free or the upcoming Apple CarPlay and Android Auto allow drivers to control their phones with their cars’ own dashboard controls, but this requires phone and car to talk. A built-in 4G connection will make that easier, GM believes.

2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe

As a clear statement of intent, designers placed the ATS’ new-for-2015 wireless charging pad behind a motorized facade in the center console, forcing drivers to lock their phones away and use the CUE infotainment system’s voice controls and touch screen instead.

The point is to keep a person’s hands and the wheel and their eyes on the road, but it’s still unclear whether current infotainment interfaces can do that.

While more ergonomic than hold a smartphone with one hand and steering with the other CUE still has its problems, as do most other systems. There’s also the question of whether people are simply doing too many tasks to be able to adequately concentrate on driving.

A data plan for your car

It’s all part of a brave new world of connectivity, one where you have to add your car to your data plan.

AT&T customers can add their GM vehicles to an existing Mobile Share Plan for $10 a month.

AT&T customers can add their GM vehicles to an existing Mobile Share Plan for $10 a month. New customers can get a data plan starting at $10 a month for 200 megabytes. There are one gigabyte ($15), 3 GB ($30), and 5 GB ($50) plans available as well.

At launch, GM will offer three months or 3 GB of data (whichever comes first) for free – and unlike most cellphone carriers – OnStar won’t let customers go over their limit and rack up a huge bill.

A message will appear on the car’s main screen when the limit has been reached, and more can even be added on the fly.

The roll out

GM expects to have 4G available on around 30 vehicles by the end of the year. The rollout is based on when individual 2015 models hit showrooms, but the service will accompany the rest of these new or revised models when they go on sale.

The only holdouts are certain niche-market vehicles like work trucks, and the full-size crossover trio consisting of the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, and GMC Acadia, which need certain hardware upgrades and won’t get 4G until the 2016 model year.

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