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More Cars Were Connected to Cell Networks Than Phones This Year

The rise of the connected car, brought to you by AT&T.

It’s one of those things we at The Drive rarely think about, but a vast majority of new cars on sale today are equipped with a built-in cellular data connection. From the humble Chevrolet Spark to the regal Mercedes-Maybach S600, connected cars have quietly become ubiquitous across the entire automotive spectrum. As it turns out, in the first quarter of 2016, automobiles became the largest-growing segment of connected devices to jump onto America’s cell phone networks.

According to the consultancy firm Chetan Sharma, connected cars made up 32 percent of new connected devices between January 1 and March 31. Mobile phones, on the other hand? 31 percent. Tablets made up 23 percent, while connected devices belonging to the so-called “Internet of Things”—Nest thermostats, smart refrigerators, etc.—made up the remaining 14 percent.

That doesn’t mean cars with built-in cell phone connections have quietly grown to outnumber the 330 million-plus cell phones currently in use across the United States. The data concerns new activations—new devices being added to the networks, not the total number of connected cars (or phones) across the board. As the cell phone market has largely reached saturation, most activations aren’t new ones that add to the total—they just replace existing ones. The number of cars with built-in cell phone connections, on the other hand, has just begun to grow. And it will likely continue to do so quite rapidly, as automotive manufacturers bake in more features that require a data connection.

Carmakers don’t make a habit of boasting about which cell phone company they choose for their vehicles—they’ve probably seen the polls that say most Americans loathe the big names in the mobile phone industry—but if your car has a built-in Wi-Fi connection or streams navigation data over the cellular networks, it’s probably doing so thanks to AT&T. Of America’s wireless companies, AT&T boasts by far the largest number of cars on its network; with more than 8 million vehicles connected to its towers, it has more than all the other U.S. carriers combined.

Of course, you might not even realize your car is linked up to the cell towers at all. (Well, not you, well-educated and car-savvy reader. But maybe your friends.) A recent survey found that about 40 percent of Europeans polled had no idea their vehicles even offered connective features.

We’re curious to know what our readers think about this. Does your car have Wi-Fi or other built-in connectivity features? And if so, how often do you use them? Let us know in the comments below.