At home, at work, or on the run, we always seem to be online these days. And soon that will also be the case while traveling by car. In 2020 one in five vehicles around the world will have a wireless internet connection, the research company Gartner says. The advantages are clear. The driver can access online content such as radio streaming and email while traveling by using the car’s infotainment system. And passengers can use the vehicle’s own WiFi hotspot to connect their smartphones and tablets directly to the Internet. At the same time, the link facilitates telematics functions such as automatic emergency eCall services and traffic warnings in real time.
But how exactly can a car connect to the Internet? There are basically three options: a private smartphone functioning as a router, an adapter with a SIM card, or a permanently installed in-car SIM card.
Internet via smartphone
The cheapest option is to use a smartphone, especially as most car owners already have one. Using so-called tethering technology, the smartphone provides an Internet connection via its SIM card to the car’s infotainment system and other devices like tablets. The mobile phone uses either WiFi, a USB cable or Bluetooth for the link. One advantage of this option is that drivers can freely choose their wireless providers and pricing plans.
However, this comes at the expense of reception. The vehicle’s metal chassis deflects part of the signal. And this problem could get worse in coming years, as more carmakers are using metal-coated windows. These reduce CO2 emissions by deflecting infrared rays to reduce cabin temperatures and the need for air conditioning, which in turn improves fuel efficiency because the motor doesn’t have to work so hard. But the metal coating also ruins the reception of smartphones and navigation systems.
Wireless adapter for cars
Drivers can avoid this problem by installing in their cars a so-called dongle, an adapter for SIM cards that can be plugged into a cigarette lighter or a USB port. The dongle then typically uses the car’s own antenna, so the chassis no longer affects the reception. Still, as vehicle antennas are set up for radio waves and not for wireless communication, this option cannot offer the best possible performance either.
But another relatively new development is available: that of installing a SIM card directly into the car with its own external wireless antenna. This embedded SIM, or eSIM, is currently only offered by very few carmakers. But that is likely to change from in 2018, when EU law will require every new car to have its own eSIM installed so it can use the emergency eCall system. Though a fixed SIM normally limits the choice of wireless provider, it offers the best Internet connection possible with an antenna that is optimized for wireless performance.
Affordable surfing abroad
This option can be particularly attractive for both business travelers and vacationers. Depending on the service provided by the carmaker, an eSIM card can be wirelessly reprogrammed to use lower-cost local mobile tariffs while driving in a foreign country. Alternatively, the car can come complete with a pricing plan for wireless Internet in several countries. What makes this SIM special is how it uses separate APNs (Access Point Names) for wireless Internet and other telematics functions such as eCall, ensuring top performance for both because the data streams don’t get in each other’s way.
The market for automotive WiFi appears to be ready to race ahead. A study by Tomorrow Focus Media showed that only seven percent of drivers currently had Internet in their cars but more than 40 percent would like to have it. The technology they will use for it depends ultimately on the networking options that their carmakers provide.