A couple months ago, I found out that a seemingly pointless On* (the vehicle service formerly known as OnStar) feature can actually be extremely useful.
On a trip to the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona (near Portal, AZ), I found myself looking for food. The local café had closed earlier than I thought, and we were pretty far south of I-10. So, we needed to look and see if we could find any nearby restaurants or break out the rations. But, even Verizon’s great cellular service wasn’t working, so we couldn’t access Google Maps to check restaurant hours or even call them.
But, I noticed that on the top of the infotainment display, there was a signal strength meter showing that the car’s infotainment was getting a weak but usable signal. But, the wifi hotspot doesn’t serve a phone if it’s connected via wireless Android Auto (note to Chevrolet: this would be a good thing to change if possible). So, I turned Android Auto off in my phone, connected to the phone’s hotspot, and was able to get the information I needed.
It turned out that we needed to eat crackers to hold us over for dinner in Lordsburg, but it was good to be able to get some mobile data in an area where it otherwise wouldn’t work.
Since then, I’ve used the feature several times on rural drives. Once, I was in an area that technically should have some cell signal, but I was between two small hills with enough vegetation to block a handheld cellular signal. Worse, I was stuck in deep sand that I had unexpectedly run into. As with the last time, I disabled Android Auto, connected to the hotspot, and was able to get pulled out. I decided it was time for a tire upgrade and some recovery gear, but that’s another story I’ll tell soon once testing is complete.
But, on my most recent trip out of town, I figured out that wireless Android Auto, at least on the Chevrolet infotainment system, kind of sucks. Around town, I have very little problem with it. But, on road trips, the connection to the phone keeps dropping out and it can’t recover without a complete power cycle of the vehicle. This often meant going without Android Auto for an hour or more because I didn’t want to pull over for a reboot. (Another note to Chevy: this should be fixed or an easy reboot option is needed.)
But, I figured out something cool. When I connect the phone with a cable, the hotspot data kicks back in, giving the phone full access to the data while using Android Auto, even in areas where the phone loses signal and the car still has it. So, for local drives, I’m going to stick with wireless Android Auto, but for long drives (especially in rural areas), I’m going to start using the cable, both for reliability and to get a signal in many dead zones.
Why The Car Gets A Cellular Signal When Phones Don’t
If you’re not a radio technician or a ham radio fanatic, it may seem weird that a connected car would get a 4G data signal when your smartphone gets nothing. After all, they’re connecting to the same towers and using the same kind of signal, right? But, there’s a little more to it than that.
A car is actually a kind of Faraday cage, or basically a steel cage. With all of the metal around you, it can be very hard for radio signals (including cellular phone signals) to get in and out of the car. So, when you’re at the edge of normal cellular coverage or in a low spot, a phone inside the car will lose signal.
Add to this that smartphones have relatively small and weak antenna systems, and it’s not hard for the vehicle’s roof-mounted antenna to get a serious edge over the smartphone. With a better antenna outside of the vehicle, and possibly with a stronger transmitter, coverage areas are far better for the car’s antenna.
OnStar has a map showing its coverage, and like most connected vehicles, it’s excellent compared to handheld coverage maps for all of these reasons, plus it says they work with multiple cellular carriers for maximum coverage.
But, There Are Still Holes In That Map!
All that green coverage probably covers just about everything most readers would ever need, but if you’re like me and you want to intentionally go see nature (and do it on electric power), you may just actually go into those zones. Three big adventure plans I have for the next few months go straight through the heart of three of them.
The Bolt EUV’s small sharkfin antenna probably isn’t the greatest, and it may be possible to upgrade it for a longer “whip” antenna of some kind. But, that’s probably only going to shrink the dead zones a little around the edges. Cellular signals can’t penetrate mountains or go over them, no matter how much power or how good the antenna is.
The obvious one people will mention if I don’t mention it is satellite communications, including Starlink. That’s a great option, and can even be put on vehicles if you don’t mind the relatively large antenna. Or, if you carry it as a kit, you could set the thing up in an emergency. There are also satellite phones, including various options that are going to be built into phones starting next year.
But, those things require a monthly fee, and they aren’t good for talking to someone just a few hundred yards away unless they also have a satellite device of some kind. So, I like to have two-way radios. With a powerful vehicle-installed radio and a few cheaper handheld ones, it’s possible to call out for help if needed in a dead zone or just call a family member nearby on hikes, etc.
But, either of those options require expense and possibly vehicle modification. If you go with ham radio for two-way radio, you’ll also need to pass a test (which isn’t super hard with online study tools). So, for most people, it’s probably just a lot easier to use a connected vehicle’s cellular antenna for 95% of your travels!
Featured image: a screenshot from OnStar’s website.
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