when you're a spoiled-rotten car reviewer, you spend a lot of time in cars you didn't pay for. that's obvious. what might not be obvious is that automakers seldom go out of their way to grant reviewers access to their full telematics functionality in loaner vehicles. i'm talking about the kinds of subscription-based, cellular-enabled systems like gm's onstar and hyundai's blue link that let you fire up a smartphone app or open a web portal that communicates with your car. they can do some compelling things, like lock or unlock the car, remote-start it when the weather's foul, or even drop a dime on your speeding teen or cheating spouse by monitoring vehicle speed and location.
some of these things are worth checking out, and thanks to the purchase and yearlong testing of our best of 2018 award-winning volkswagen atlas, we had a six-month free trial in which to put its telematics system, car-net, through its paces. naturally, five months and one week into this period, someone asked me how my examination was going, and i confidently replied, "huh?"
but that was days ago, and i can now report on the car-net security and service experience and attempt to determine if the functionality is worth $17.99 per month of 's money after the trial expires just days from now.
where's the remote start?
not to project the answer too quickly, but i assure you we'd have used car-net by now had two things been different: one, if our key fob didn't have a remote-start button, and two, if car-net actually supported remote start. yes, we have remote start on our fob, but the range isn't always good enough. with its cellular foundation, car-net could remote-start our atlas practically anywhere ... if it were capable of doing that. why isn't it? volkswagen says car-net 1.0, which debuted for the automaker's 2014 model year, would have required extensive used engine ering changes to provide remote start, so it held feature for car-net 2.0, which a spokesman said is coming "soon." as of now, it's unclear if existing vehicles can be upgraded once version 2.0 arrives.
for now, car-net allows you to lock or unlock the doors and flash the lights, with or without honking the horn, the latter a good — if embarrassing — way to figure out where you parked at the mall. if you're the kind of person who loses his or her car or consistently worries he or she left the car unlocked (we're not judging), car-net probably looks like a blessing.
what can it do?
one thing car-net can do that i didn't mention earlier is what telematics systems have done since arriving in gm and lincoln vehicles of the mid-1990s: provide automatic crash notification, potentially saving your life if you're in a remote location and incapacitated by a crash severe enough to deploy the airbags. an operator asks via the hands-free telephone system if you're ok and want help sent to your location. if you don't respond, help will be sent. will endeavor not to test this aspect of car-net no matter how long the free trial lasts, having done so before.
on one hand, this foundational feature — along with the button that calls roadside assistance — was arguably more valuable in 1996 before everyone carried a cellphone. on the other hand, you'll probably crash in 2018 because you were texting while driving and the airbag has blasted your smartphone into the next county. in this circumstance, car-net would prove valuable.
the creepy stuff
some of the things car-net does best are also the creepiest — the big brother stuff: speed alerts, boundary alerts and curfew alerts. using the web portal or app, an owner can establish a maximum speed that, if exceeded, will send a text or email or both, without alerting the driver. a history of violations appears in the portal.
using the website only, owners can establish a boundary called a geofence — a circle or square — of any size on a map and instruct car-net to alert them anytime the vehicle enters or exits that area. the idea here is that a teen may have car privileges exclusively for driving to school or work and isn't allowed to venture elsewhere. the programmable curfew alert is another means of keeping an eye on the offspring. or whomever. like i said, creepy.
vehicle health and status
the car-net app and site can show you where the vehicle is at any given time you check, which continues the creepy theme and is helpful if you're really forgetful about your car's location. (it's worth noting that some obd plug-ins, like the ones offered by pay-per-mile insurers, have the same capability.) also shown are the odometer reading, the number of miles and days until the next service interval, and a vehicle health report that rates three areas — engine & transmission & powertrain (which is totally redundant, but don't mind me), tires & brakes and driver assistance systems — with one of four statuses: "stop! do not drive," "repair or adjustment needed," "service and maintenance needed" or "good to go! no faults detected."
car-net will send you a monthly e-mail report with this information, as well, but there's no reason to wait. using the app, you can instruct car-net to send push notifications to your phone every time the vehicle's doors are unlocked or opened (an irritating feature i promptly disabled), if the windows or trunk are open, if the fuel is low, if the moonroof is open and, for some vw models, if the windows or moonroof are open and the forecast has rain or snow.
what can't car-net 1.0 do?
one thing car-net 1.0 can't do, apart from remote-start, is team up with law enforcement to slow down a carjacked vehicle as onstar can, but it does provide stolen vehicle location assistance using gps signals as described above — so long as you act before a professional thief disables the electronics.
how about my privacy?
like so many aspects of today's computers and smartphones, it's impossible to get something (functionality) by giving nothing (in the form of data) to the service provider. according to volkswagen car-net security and service's terms of service, the company understandably knows what type of vehicle you have, the dealer from which you purchased or leased it, your billing information, the type of mobile device you use to access car-net and how you use the service. vw may share this data with affiliates and service partners (google maps, parkopedia and such), but it's anonymized if shared with third-party business partners.
if any of this freaks you out, you probably aren't a good candidate for car-net ... or the 21st century. car-net documents state that unless the onboard equipment is completely disabled, it may be possible for vw and verizon telematics to determine the car's location if required to do so by law, court order, subpoena or other legal requirements. for the full story, see the terms of service; they're subject to change.
so are we paying?
having reviewed all of these features, we certainly see the appeal — especially of the creepier ones that you can't achieve through other means (like staying aware of your fuel level, maintenance schedule and whether you closed the damn windows). but we at don't need to keep tabs on each other this way, and, living in a densely populated region, there's a high probability that plenty of phone-toting bystanders will witness any collision we experience.
ultimately, we can't justify the $17.99 plus tax per month, which could be knocked down to as little as $15 plus tax per month if we didn't mind paying upfront for 36 months or more (the balance is always refundable, but vw gives you a break if you let it sit on your money).
the one thing that might make us re-up, or sign up just for the winter months and then discontinue car-net again, is cellular-enabled remote start. but sadly, remote start is not supported.
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