By on December 10, 2021

When people started burning down 5G towers in fear, the practice seemed a little misguided. But if you happen to be the owner of a connected automobile, there’s a chance you’ll be wishing enough of them had been taken down to delay those low-latency spires from becoming the default broadcasting network.

While you were probably aware that 3G cellular networks will be shut down in the U.S. next year so the telecom industry can focus in on 5G, you may not have been hip to the fact that this could totally nullify the connected features inside of your car. Unfortunately, loads of automobiles manufactured the early days of phone pairing and internet integration won’t be able to make the journey into 5G like the new phone or tablet you purchased. Worse yet, there are even some modern vehicles that are about to become a lot less feature rich with companies that have no intention of offering updates. 

The issue is basically the same one that’s about to impact some cell phones. Older vehicles weren’t built with 5G in mind because it didn’t exist. But even after it arrived, plenty of companies stayed with 3G because most manufacturers are prefer to cheap out on components whenever possible to reduce overhead. The Federal Communications Commission also isn’t interested in holding onto 3G bandwidth just for automakers (who it doesn’t have a great relationship with anyway) when it can be reallocated to serve newer technologies.

Despite being aware of the transition to 5G, your author was under the assumption that most vehicles would be getting updates that set them up for 4G (which is supposed to be around for a while). That’s true, however, it won’t be the situation for everyone. According to The Drive’s Rob Stumpf, there’s a good chance that a lot of cars will lose items like navigational/traffic data, emergency call services, remote locking/unlocking, smartphone connectivity, voice controls, WiFi hotspot capabilities, telematic data, and more when 3G finally goes dark.

But the ramifications aren’t limited to having a car with bricked connectivity features. Stumpf is also concerned that this change underlines the limitations to the digitized services automakers plan to lock behind subscription fees and over-the-air updates.

From The Drive:

The end of 3G is perhaps the most under-covered story in the industry right now with the widest potential impact, involving millions of cars from nearly every major automaker. At the same time, the response from car companies has been uneven at best — as we’ll explain here, automakers’ plans range from upgrading people’s vehicles to 4G or 5G (for a fee, of course) to shrugging their shoulders and quietly acknowledging that their cars are about to lose a lot of features.

In many ways, it’s also a preview of the kind of longevity issues we’ll face in a future of fully connected vehicles, loaded with subscription features whose continued functionality depends on your car being able to talk to a central server controlled by a company and reliant on a network technology that won’t be around forever. The decision to make cars part of the internet of things has undeniable upsides, but innumerable consequences that we’re only just starting to grasp. Change is coming, and it’s not always going to be pretty.

I’ve been so down on connectivity, data harvesting, and the general premise of “mobility,” that a part of me hopes this will be a big wake up call for consumers. My dream involves a free and open internet, vehicles that are totally disconnected from it, and car companies that are focused on delivering performance and comfort — rather than the most invasive user interface they could whip up with help from Amazon. But the rest of the world probably wants cars they can sync with their phone and integrate all those smart home devices that talk you, making the radio frequency sweep that’s about to take place a big deal.

There is a bit of Y2K-style paranoia here, however. While some vehicles will undoubtedly be dumbed down — for lack of a better term — by the abandonment of 3G, we don’t know the full scope of the problem. Plenty of automakers are willing to offer over-the-air updates to keep connected features in tact and there are even a few that will let customers come in and update the hardware. But not every model is eligible and you’ll have to check with your dealership to see if your ride (likely from the 2010-2021 model year) is going to get the help it needs.

The Drive provided an incomplete list of impacted models and it’s only slightly shorter than the average Tolstoy novel. It’s well worth a look. But you might want to contact your dealership to save yourself some time, especially if it happens to belong to one of the brands that isn’t listed. Sadly, more than a few manufacturers are only offering an upgrade to 4G via subscription fees:

The plan, my friend, depends entirely on the automaker. For example, Stellantis says it plans to continue to offer connected services to its customers at a price. Vehicles able to update to 4G will be offered the option to purchase a subscription that includes the necessary hardware and 2GB of data per month at $9.99, or unlimited data for $29.99 per month. Subaru is performing retrofits at no cost, but only if the customer currently has a connected vehicle plan, according to a service bulletin filed with the NHTSA. It’s not clear what this might mean for future owners should who want to purchase connected services later on in the vehicle’s life. GM started pushing a free over-the-air update in October to keep OnStar running post-3G, though some 2015 model year cars will need a hardware swap. Meanwhile, Tesla says that it plans to charge $200 to upgrade older Model S vehicles, but no additional fees are noted for its continued use.

Some automakers, like Toyota and Lexus, are not planning to retrofit any affected vehicles. In its public FAQs on the topic, Toyota cites a clause in its disclosures that states certain connected services may change at any time without notice. And when The Drive asked Toyota if it plans to offer an upgrade, paid or otherwise, for consumers who own affected vehicles, the answer was a simple “no.”

Obviously automakers have realized that this is yet another item they can charge for. But it’s also not in their best interest to continue supporting technologies that would have been considered antiquated in relation to cell phones when they came out. Regardless of what they claim, automakers are not tech companies and are often a generation or two behind in terms of electronics. 4G will someday be abandoned as well, potentially creating an even larger version of the problem we’re currently confronting. Maybe that’s something worth considering when you purchase your next vehicle or get excited about a novel connectivity feature that’s considered “standard equipment.” Though the real rub is how the overwhelming majority of features equipped to automobiles doesn’t need 5G connectivity.

Alright, so you probably want to know how long you have to take care of this and I wish I had better news for you. All the major telecom providers (AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile/Sprint) are planning to kill 3G at the end of 2022. That gives you a few months to get your affairs in order or risk returning to the unconnected life where your car reverts to being a mechanical conveyance to be enjoyed in relative isolation.

[Image: TPROduction/Shutterstock]

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63 Comments on “Report: The End of 3G Could Leave Your Vehicle With Fewer Features...”

  • avatar

    From what I’ve gotten from some of my EV friends, BMW i3 owners are going to be particularly screwed with this. And BMW is supposedly doing nothing to come up with a patch for whatever functions are going to be lost.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I’m shocked at how new most of the cars are in that list. Hope my 19 Hyundai isn’t affected, but its design is older than that.

    As for subscriptions – a subscription won’t magically bring 3G to your car if 3G is killed off by the service providers, so I don’t understand why the mfrs even mention it.

    • 0 avatar

      Sounds like the automakers may be willing to install 4G modems, but they want some assurance of a revenue stream to make it worthwhile. IE, they won’t install a 4G modem on a car you might sell for scrap, just ’cause you want it.

  • avatar

    My 2013 Cooper S 6/MT is not affected.
    Long Live the Luddites!

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    The only thing that the car needs to be connected to is the driver.

  • avatar

    “In many ways, it’s also a preview of the kind of longevity issues we’ll face in a future of fully connected vehicles”

    *Insert meme here*

  • avatar

    You know those dystopian novels where the newer, more complicated stuff doesn’t work but the older vehicles still can be found chugging along?

  • avatar

    I actually thought about, then intentionally spec’d my last 2 new cars to NOT be reliant on cellular radios. Obviously that’s gonna get harder as time goes on.

    If carmakers really intend on making money with their version of in-app-purchases, they’re gonna have to figure some way around this. The same may also apply to processing and storage.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    You are suppose to get rid of your vehicle after a few years and update just like Iphones. Planned obsolescence along with eliminating oil dipsticks, timing belts internally connected with water pumps, CVTs, and a few other no maintenance items that will shorten the life of your vehicle.

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    Of the vehicles we currently have only one has any sort of connectivity – and it had its cable severed.

  • avatar
    Secret Hi5

    I loved my Lexus, but the 3G issue was one reason why I sold it to Car* (They bought it for an absurdly high amount and seem to be having trouble reselling it now.)

    Remember when GM’s old Onstar stopped working? This isn’t a new issue.

  • avatar

    I have no problem with my ancient 2018 Fusion. Navigation still works without connection and even if does not I can integrate my Pixel3 into my car via USB cable any time. With new EVs it will be more complicated but still I do not see why you cannot connect via your phone.

  • avatar

    Yep, my 2016 Highlander will lose its data connection. I don’t really use it for much, but it means I won’t have the option of subscribing to Toyota Safety Connect anymore (i.e., roadside assistance, automatic emergency calls for crashes, etc.)

  • avatar

    Possibly related:

    [While benevolent U.S. automotive dealerships work tirelessly to get kittens adopted, evil Amazon tries to starve them.]

  • avatar

    So what you are saying is that there is a new crop of vehicles about to be safe from the prying eyes of the hive mind? Good to know. Personally I’d be happy to have my Cruze stop periodically shouting out at me advertising OnStar.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    It doesn’t make sense to build a cellular modem into the car when every driver carries a relatively modern cellular modem with them while driving.

  • avatar

    They should have never allowed cellular companies to dismantle there 3G network. As someone out in the country we can’t even get 4G out here let alone 5G. Im sure some elected officials got a handsome contribution from Verizon and AT&T if they allowed 3G to be taken out. As always the customer suffers

  • avatar

    …I’ve been so down on connectivity, data harvesting, and the general premise of “mobility,” that a part of me hopes this will be a big wake up call for consumers. My dream involves a free and open internet, vehicles that are totally disconnected from it, and car companies that are focused on delivering performance and comfort — rather than the most invasive user interface they could whip up with help from Amazon…

    Generally I seem to share little commonality with Matt, but that statement there is spot on. As my newest vehicle is a 2014, none of this matters to me. I don’t subscribe to OnStar, and the OnStar in my wife’s car is so out of date it utilizes an antenna stuck to the glass…the less connectivity – I mean snooping – in cars the better.

  • avatar

    One of the reasons why the street value of 2017 Hellcat will be about $9,000 in the near future

  • avatar

    Five reasons not to buy a Toyota or keep coming to this website. If the goal is to kill traffic you guys are doing a good job.

    Regarding this issue, it is something I’ve been aware of for some time as we have a 2013 C-Max Energi. Note those cars originally came with 2G modems and Ford had an upgrade for them. For this however it appears that I’m out of luck. The do have a customer satisfaction program where they will install and program the 4g modem you have to buy. However it only applies to C-Max vehicles produced after Apr 2014. Since no one had figured out that you could charge a monthly fee at that point it was supposed to be good for the lift of the car as it allows setting charging and go times. Unfortunately it appears that it is free for the life of 3G.

    From what I’ve read elsewhere the brochures started noting that it was free for 3 years, then 2 and finally 1 year for the 2020 Fusion Energi.

    Note this isn’t the first time this has happened the earliest Energi vehicles had a 2G modem and Ford did replace those with 3G modems for free.

    Thankfully go times can be set directly in the car as this is a feature we frequently use in the colder months to have the car warmed up on shore power to minimize the range hit due to heating the cabin from scratch.

  • avatar
    Greg Hamilton

    There is a rider on the infrastructure bill to remote control all car immobilisers. Nothing to see here.

  • avatar

    You can use the phone or the car – take your pick. I thought all the dilettantes got this out of their systems. I did when the phone weighed three pounds and said “Motorola” on the side. I do not own a car capable of being “connected”. Two have navigation but it is disc or program updated and I have had no need to change either. Or, maybe I am too dumb to know?

  • avatar

    If current technology is so great, why is the audio quality of phone calls worse than ever?

    [Back when our current Vice President was exactly half the age of our current President.]

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Vehicles are becoming more connected and basic functions like braking, starting and stopping engines, climate control, and a host of other functions that were more mechanical and less connected have become connected. I doubt this trend will slow down even with the chip shortage.

  • avatar

    Most current model cars seem to hook up with phones pretty well. Doesn’t this solve the problem? Just use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and you have all the fancy functions without needing updates from the manufacturer.

    • 0 avatar

      What we are loosing on our car is the ability to start, lock, unlock, locate, check fuel level, check battery charge status, set go times and a few other things from a phone or computer.

      You can’t replace those functions with your phone and even if you connected your phone to the car for the connectivity it still wouldn’t gain you anything because it wouldn’t work if the phone was not in the car.

  • avatar

    EMFs are the pandemic.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    BMW has said eventually it will eliminate keys and fobs and you will need to sync you Smart Phone or I Phone to unlock, start, and control your vehicle. What if someone hacks your phone?

    • 0 avatar
      Bill Wade

      So, your battery goes dead on your wretched iPhone, a common occurrence, and you’re locked out of your car.


      • 0 avatar

        @Bill Wade: “Usually”, they give you an NFC card for your wallet in case your phone dies. Who knows if BMW will do that, but that’s the normal way those systems are implemented.

    • 0 avatar

      @Jeff S: If someone hacks your phone and steals your BMW, it becomes their problem. Just make sure you don’t leave any identifying information in the case in case the thief tries to find you to return the car. They stole it. Their problem now.

  • avatar

    We do these things because we can and EVERYONE loves the newest tech. Why would we give any thought to our customers buying something that they cannot use in 3 to 5 years? We’ve already got their money. /s

    Seriously, not much ‘forward thinking’ goes into some currently manufactured items – this is one example. Just because we can does not mean we should. Many of you folks here have voiced that opinion on other various design choices and features. If no one purchased this type of thing perhaps the people making them would stop – and maybe not. We are indeed enamored with whiz-bang tech ‘magic’.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Well, you have to consider that most of the B&B are prime future customers for Consumer Cellular. Most have semi-Luddite attitudes concerning cell phones and anything else that smacks of “technology” in their minds. Never mind your cell phone allows “the man” to easily locate you. You’re can also be traced every time you swipe your debit card.

    3G is being replaced by 5G, deal with it. This is where it gets technical. A 3G modem is in the bowels of your vehicles. It’s not a phone, it’s a modem.

    I have an 09 Lexus. My nav system, yes they can track you that way too, is laughably outdated. Toyota/Lexus tech is overall laughably bad. The only issue I have is to buy and install an updated nav DVD or just keep using Waze/Google maps. Same deal if I need to upgrade my modem to 5G.

    Keeping up with the usual quality of contributions on this site; none of the editorial staff thought of reaching out to Crutchfield or another after-market car stereo company. If this is a real issue, Crutchfield or someone like them will come up with a solution.

    • 0 avatar

      “My nav system, yes they can track you that way too, is laughably outdated. Toyota/Lexus tech is overall laughably bad. The only issue I have is to buy and install an updated nav DVD or just keep using Waze/Google maps. Same deal if I need to upgrade my modem to 5G.”

      I wonder if maps still work? :D

    • 0 avatar

      No they can not track you from your 2009 gps on your vehicle. Thats not how gps works, it is a receive only system, the satellites have no idea where you are. You should really read up on how a gps receiver works and that the antenna uses the satellites in orbit to get a ground position based on coordinates that were programmed in. It’s like when I hear that you can be tracked by XM Sirius radio, strap on that tinfoil hat.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @mcs–If someone hacks your vehicle and takes control of it when you are driving it becomes your problem as well. Could kill someone and make it look like they had an accident which is something many fear when they rely more on tech instead of driving skills. I want some control over my vehicles especially since many new vehicles can be hacked.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      They segment the control systems from the internet facing stuff pretty well since the U-Connect hack. I’d be way more concerned about that dongle made in God knows where that your insurance company gave you that discount in exchange for you plugging it into the bus that those control systems sit on.

  • avatar

    Our Pacifica has a wifi hotspot and it is 4G LTE. It is nice because it is far more reliable than tethering a phone for my wife to work while on the road. It also allows the kids non-cellular tablets to stream movies or whatever to keep them entertained on the long roads across Kansas.

    That said, I am sure it is sending all sorts of data back to the motherland whether we subscribe or not.

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