Report: The End of 3G Could Leave Your Vehicle With Fewer Features

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

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]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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4 of 63 comments
  • Jeff S Jeff S on Dec 13, 2021

    @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.

    • See 1 previous
    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Dec 14, 2021

      @Art Vandelay But I gots to save that $50, so worth surrendering all of my movements to the cloud.

  • Flipper35 Flipper35 on Dec 13, 2021

    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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