The speed of new technology can be dizzying, especially when it’s flying down the highway and streaming movies, games and music all at once.
That was my experience recently with one of the first cars in the U.S. to come equipped with 4G LTE wireless service, the 2015 Audi A3 sedan that went on sale in April.
Audi and AT&T announced the 4G A3 in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where carmakers now go to show off how much their vehicles are morphing into electronic gadgets.
Since the show, all sorts of carmakers have started offering built-in LTE modems on 2015 models.
The connections serve several purposes. Drivers use them to connect to online services for traffic and mapping information, entertainment and even social networks, while passengers can connect phones, tablets, game players and other devices.
Carmakers — starting with GM back in 1996 — have long used “telematics” systems to keep track of vehicles, monitor sensors for accidents or maintenance issues and send notifications to drivers.
Over the past decade, they’ve made cars more like PCs or phones, enabling them to run all sorts of apps on their embedded computers and dashboard displays.
Now we’re rolling into the fourth generation of telematics systems, moving beyond placing calls, navigating and connecting to networks, and into an era with “seamless integration of mobility and the Web,” according to Ernst & Young, which predicts that 88 percent of new cars will have built-in wireless systems by 2025.
This is being accelerated by European Commission rules mandating that by 2015, cars have systems capable of “calling in” an accident and reporting their location.
I didn’t get the chance to test the A3’s accident-reporting capabilities, though it may be handy for drivers who flip the dashboard switch engaging the turbocharged car’s “dynamic” (bat out of hell) transmission mode.
The A3 is Audi’s lower end model, aimed at what it calls the “entry premium market,” and named the 2015 World Car of the Year by the automotive journalism fraternity.
It’s about the same dimensions as a Ford Focus and, lengthwise, it’s a foot shorter than a Toyota Camry. Getting in and out may involve a bit of twisting if you’re tall or have had too many bratwursts lately.
The real test
The taut and zippy “quattro S tronic” A3 I drove starts at $32,900, though Audi loaned me a $43,345 “Prestige” model with LTE, fancier navigation system and goodies like LED headlights and a Bang & Olufsen stereo.
To put the A3 through its paces and see what I could really do with an LTE car, I took my wife, two kids and a pile of tablets and smartphones connected to the in-car Wi-Fi network for an extended drive through prime Audi habitat — the Highway 520 corridor between Seattle and Redmond.
Traveling both directions in this river of European cars, the A3’s hot spot was able to support two different movies streaming to an iPad Air and an 8-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab S while a third passenger played the online game “Snap Attack” on a Windows Phone and the driver fiddled with the navigation system and the satellite radio.
Download speeds were unremarkable. They ranged from 1 to 2 megabits per second, while upload speeds reached up to 5 Mbps, according to Speedtest.net tests done while parked in South Lake Union.
Beyond this rolling hot-spot capability, the benefits of having 4G LTE service instead of plain old 3G service wasn’t as clear.
It can also get expensive to use the car’s modem to entertain kids with streaming movies. After a free, six-month trial period, the car’s AT&T service costs $99 for a six-month plan with 5 gigabytes of data throughput. A 30-month plan, with 30 gigs of data, costs $499.
If you’re budgeting for a road trip, Netflix uses 1 gig per hour for standard-definition movies or 3 gigs per hour for a high definition stream. AT&T also plans to let people add cars like the A3 to its shared-data plans, in which a mix of devices share a pool of data.
I think pricing plans is where carmakers and wireless companies need to get innovative, or the fourth-wave of telematics won’t amount to much.
Even people buying $43,000 sport sedans will balk at a $500 addition to their wireless bill, especially if they don’t see a lot of reasons for a 4G LTE car.
The A3 does a few tricks with the faster wireless service but they’re still not as refined and exciting as more elemental features of the car, such as its paddle shifters and tight handling.
A special Nvidia processor helps the display that pops up in the middle of the dashboard to provide higher resolution, so the Google Earth graphics you can peruse are more vivid and responsive.
Using Audi’s iPhone app, you can also send photos to the car, and the navigation system will then tell you how to drive to the pictured location.
I’m not sure how often people will use the photo navigation — will they forget where they took the picture? — but it seemed like an amazing technical feat. At least it did until I realized that the system doesn’t actually analyze images to figure out a location and directions. Instead, it reads location coordinates attached to the digital picture file and enters them into the navigation system.
Resulting directions are almost too precise. When I sent the car an image of the Seattle Great Wheel, the system directed me not to the waterfront Ferris wheel but to the point on the viaduct — a few blocks south of the wheel — where I had taken the picture.
The dashboard system can also be used to check Facebook and Twitter updates. But that’s the last thing you want to be doing behind the wheel, especially if the car’s a pleasure to drive.
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