Sprint Joins the Connected-Car Add-On Game

US drivers can get in on the connected-car game even if they’re driving an old hand-me-down. Now, all the big mobile operators offer devices that can be added to almost any car made since 1996.

The newly introduced Sprint Drive joins the Verizon Hum, T-Mobile SyncUP Drive, and Harman Spark from AT&T, offering a set of vehicle health and tracking features along with an onboard WiFi hotspot.

While cellular radios are increasingly offered in new cars with advanced infotainment systems and ever-growing touchscreens, most vehicles on the road in the US are more than 11-years-old. Thanks to the on-board diagnostics (OBD2) port, standard since 1996, it’s possible to add mobile data to that trusty Lucerne or PT Cruiser. This trend could help both consumers and commercial fleet operators.

The Sprint Drive device plugs into the OBD2 port, usually found under the dashboard, and taps into onboard computers to monitor vehicle health. It also serves as a WiFi hotspot using Sprint’s cellular network and offers cloud-based services for locating the car, monitoring how it’s being driven, and giving warnings if it needs service.

Sprint Drive offers the standard features available on most carriers’ products. It sends alerts to the owner’s phone for things like low fuel, a bad battery and problems that would otherwise set off an unspecific warning light. The built-in WiFi hotspot can connect as many as eight devices to the Internet through LTE.

Like other products, it also includes tools to monitor driving. It lets owners track their vehicle’s location in real time and through history, including whether it’s crossed a geofence boundary or been driven after a curfew time. It also tracks events like sharp turns and hard braking or acceleration.

While these features may be useful for keeping tabs on teen drivers — or the elderly, as Sprint suggests — there are other potential applications. Anyone can track their own driving and score themselves on how safely they’re driving. The same features allow Sprint Drive to be used for small-business fleet management, and there’s an enterprise analytics web portal.

List price for the device is $120 up front or 24 installments of $5 per month. Service plans include $10 per month for 2GB of data or $25 per month for an unlimited plan.

This includes 24/7 roadside assistance for emergencies like a flat tire, a dead battery or a gas tank that goes empty despite the available fuel-level alerts. That service is limited to four calls per year. There’s also a Mechanic Hotline that drivers can call to ask for repair advice, cost estimates and shop locations.

Meanwhile, Sprint is looking ahead to 5G and more advanced connected-vehicle systems. In June, it announced a platform in conjunction with startup NXM Labs that Sprint says is 5G-ready. The future system will include a WiFi hotspot and features such as maintenance reminders and preventive notifications, the companies said. A blockchain-based Internet of Things security system from NXM will secure the platform from hackers, they said.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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