Given the ubiquity of internet access, and the convergence of cloud-hosted platforms, it’s perhaps surprising that our cars remain something of an online blackspot.
Until recently, vehicles were manufactured with proprietary software systems controlling their infotainment systems, making any form of third-party connectivity very difficult.
Most in-car systems were little more than music players and mobile phone interfaces, with satellite navigation distinguishing higher-end models.
Even developments like smartphone mirroring – which still requires physical cables in some brand-new cars – have been rolled out slowly and inconsistently.
The obvious answer has always been to extend broadband coverage from our homes to our vehicles.
Yet despite tentative steps in the direction of unified connectivity, broadband in cars remains a distant prospect…
The information superhighway
The biggest single problem facing manufacturers in terms of standardising broadband in cars is coverage.
When Toyotas are manufactured in the titular Japanese city, internet connectivity is near-ubiquitous.
By the time these cars are being driven through the Scottish Highlands, there is often little 3G mobile network coverage, let alone scope for high-speed internet access.
Home broadband networks usually rely on cables which physically extend into our homes, and there’s no way to provide comparable hardwired connections to moving vehicles.
Even the advent of domestic electric charging points – which require an internet connection – hasn’t bridged the gap, since some chargers use mobile connections rather than WiFi.
And as any EV owner will attest, the incompatibility of different charging networks and hardware has pushed one-size-fits-all connectivity further away, not brought it closer.
The closest we’ve come to broadband in cars is being able to remotely pre-heat or cool the cabins through a smartphone app, which itself would work on 4G just as well as on WiFi.
A few manufacturers have tried to standardise their dashboard interfaces by using Google-based software, but adoption remains patchy.
Also, Google software isn’t great if you’ve got an iPhone. Conversely, it took Porsche until the 2023 model year to offer wireless Android Auto, having provided wireless Apple CarPlay for years.
The only standardisation comes from brands like Stellantis, who fit similar infotainment systems into Fiat, Vauxhall, Peugeot, Citroen, Alfa Romeo, Jeep and Chrysler vehicles.
Driving up connectivity
With broadband in cars effectively a non-starter due to infrastructure limitations, manufacturers have been forced to seek other ways to link our homes and vehicles.
Many cars include satellite mapping and infotainment suites like Gracenote (shown in the photo above), which can be updated by removing components from the car and plugging them into a computer.
It’s fiddly, but it does technically ensure vehicles are updated via home broadband.
Another approach sees cars fitted with a 4G mobile SIM, creating a WiFi hotspot to facilitate media streaming and improved device connectivity.
Again, though, there’s no consistency in how this is designed or implemented by individual manufacturers. Some pre-install SIM cards, while others let you choose your own network.
There’s no standardisation in terms of what you can do with these connections, either. Some manufacturers prohibit video content displaying while a vehicle is in motion, for instance.
There may be app-based workarounds to such restrictions, but these are rarely well publicised and require a certain amount of technical knowhow to source, connect and operate them.
The price isn’t right
It’s also important to remember that mobile data can become expensive.
You could easily consume 500MB of data streaming an hour’s worth of Instagram Stories, for instance.
Costs may spiral if the SIM card providing connectivity to a vehicle exceeds its monthly data limits, defaulting to higher pay-as-you-go rates.
For these reasons, we would always advocate performing vehicle updates across WiFi (or removing SIM/USB cards and physically inserting them into computers on home broadband).
It might be tempting to watch Netflix while being driven cross-country, but it’s far more cost-effective to download content in advance than trying to replicate home broadband in cars…