Ford SmartLink gives connectivity to older cars, but for a price

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Ford SmartLink gives connectivity to older cars, but for a price

When it was first introduced in 2007, there was nothing like the original Ford Sync system, since it allowed car owners to connect and use a portable device better than anything that came before it. And because it was a brought-in/tethered and software-based system, Sync leveraged a device’s connectivity and was easily updated.

It took competitors awhile to catch up: Toyota Entune wasn’t available until 2011, and Chevy MyLink didn’t roll out until 2012. But now Ford is the one playing catchup since it stuck with the brought-in strategy while most other automakers were quicker to add connectivity via an embedded cellular modem.

Ford initially installed 2G/3G modems in its small fleet of electric and plug-in electric vehicles starting in 2012 so that owners could keep tabs on charging. Embedded connectivity came to Lincoln in 2014, and Ford began adding onboard 4G LTE via Sync Connect to select cars starting with the Escape in 2015.

To get more cars connected more quickly, last week the automaker rolled out its FordPass SmartLink solution that plugs into the OBD port of 2010 to 2017 model year vehicles. This lets owners retroactively get onboard Wi-Fi, set up a “geo-fence” to keep tabs on a car’s location, receive vehicle health reports and allows remote engine starting and door locking/unlocking using a smartphone app, among other features.

But to connect older Ford vehicles will cost owners $16.99 a month for two years, not including installation. Ford throws in 1 GB of data or a 30-day trial, whichever comes first, after which owners have to add the vehicle to their Verizon shared data plan, which supplies connectivity for SmartLink, or establish a new account. (Disclosure: Autoblog is owned by Verizon.)

By comparison, GM’s 4G LTE data plans start at $10 a month for 200 MB and goes up to $30 for 3 GB, and owners can also add a car to an AT&T shared-data plan. But OnStar doesn’t have a separate monthly subscription for the embedded modem or an installation charge, and standard features via the RemoteLink Mobile App are free for the first five years of ownership. FCA’s Uconnect Access service also uses an embedded modem to provide similar telematics features for $20 per month following a free one-year trial, while a la carte in-car Wi-Fi is offered for $10 per day, $20 per week or $35 per month.

OnStar quietly shuttered its aftermarket For My Vehicle (FMV) system two years after introduction because not enough people wanted to pay $299 a year to add the service to existing vehicles. There is an appetite for embedded connectivity — and data — but among new car buyers.

A GM spokesperson told me that from 2016 to 2017, data usage by the company’s car owners increased nearly 300 percent, from 6.8 million GB to 20.3 million GB. “In general, the vehicle connectivity trend is heating up,” Mark Boyadjis, a principal analyst and manager of Automotive User Experience at IHS Markit, told me. “We estimate that by 2022, 87 percent of U.S. vehicles sold will be equipped with telematics.”

Boyadjis added that IHS Markit research shows that 30 percent of new car shoppers are willing to pay extra for telematics services. “But we also know that a majority of respondents are increasingly expecting these features to come standard on their vehicle,” he said.

Which makes me wonder whether they want to add it to older vehicles. And whether Ford’s attempt to play catchup can attract enough existing vehicle owners willing pay to get their cars connected.

Boyadjis admits he’s on the fence. “I have a 2012 Ford Focus Hatchback,” he said. But looking at two-year contract of around $400 not including installation, he’s not sure if the features justify the costs.

“The remote start and lock/unlock from my phone would be nice, as would the vehicle health report feature, since my car is beyond 70,000 miles now,” he added. “While I am intrigued about the prospect of gaining these new services for my vehicle, I’m unsure if I will pull the trigger. We’ll see.”

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