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Ford Zigs with LTE while Zagging with Wi-Fi

by Roger Lanctot | Nov 17, 2015

Ford has announced its plans to launch its first vehicle with an optional built-in LTE connection, the 2016 Ford Escape, while simultaneously maintaining its clever stance on Wi-Fi in the car.  While GM and competitors such as BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Jaguar Land Rover are touting embedded Wi-Fi hotspots, Ford is still emphasizing the use of Wi-Fi for software updates.

Even after making the fateful decision to add LTE, which portends wider deployment across Ford's product line up and globally, the company is sticking to its Wi-Fi guns - with Wi-Fi already available on nearly 10M Ford SYNC-equipped vehicles.  What few realize is that the Wi-Fi strategy is supported by agreements with Wi-Fi service providers including AT&T, Verizon, Cox Cable, Comcast, Boingo and others adding up to 85 million public hotspots with 95% geographic coverage for a system that will automatically provide connectivity to Ford vehicles for secure software updates.

The LTE announcement is important and offers functions such as :

  • Lock and unlock
  • Remote start, including the ability to schedule a remote start (for example, you need to leave at 8 am and want your car running and warm before getting in, program a remote start for 7:50 via the app and drive away comfortably at 8)
  • Vehicle status (showing fuel, oil, tire pressure, and battery level), and
  • Vehicle location – app shows where your car is parked on a map

The user enables the system through a two-step authentication process to protect personal information and confirm set-up on the SYNC screen inside the vehicle and on the mobile application.  SYNC Connect comes with service for five years and offers convenient over-the-air updates.

Given the current strategy of free updates via Wi-Fi Ford is likely to take its time sorting out the direct updating of the TCU and head unit via the LTE connection.  Updates will be limited to those two systems in either event.

Ford's approach highlights the value of Wi-Fi as a means to update vehicle software, rather than as a marketable platform for offering vehicle-based hotspot service at a price.  GM is literally selling data minutes for users of the OnStar hotspot, a strategy that has left many industry observers and consumers scratching their heads even as GM claims that as many as 20% of customers for some of its cars have tapped into this service.

At a time when vehicle security and software updates have become a focal point for the automotive industry, Ford has one again found a clever way to add value and differentiate at low or no cost to its customers.  While it is surprising that Ford has not emphasized vehicle diagnostics or service scheduling with the built-in LTE connection, it is worth noting that Ford's Vehicle Health Report delivered via the SYNC smartphone connection is one of the most comprehensive such reports available to consumers.

So Ford is taking its first tentative LTE step, but its ace in the hole remains its Wi-Fi strategy.  Ford's next step is to extend the software update capability to the entire vehicle while maintaining security.  And it may soon be time for Ford to consider an embedded 911 Assist-type function and live diagnostic capabilities.

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