Dongles are, as a species, bad. They exist to fix design limitations in, say, a $2,000 MacBook that can’t communicate with your $1,000 iPhone, or connect almost any laptop to the presentation room projector.
But to every rule there’s an exception, and for every dumb Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle, there’s a Ford SmartLink. For a modest monthly fee, the SmartLink dongle plugs into your car’s hidden ODB2 port and provides all kinds of fancy tracking and remote-start options that are normally reserved for much more expensive cars.
When plugged into the OBD2 port on Ford cars from 2010 to 2017, the SmartLink adds an LTE hotspot, gives you information about vehicle health through an app (so you can see what kind of error a check engine light is), allows tracking of the vehicle, and lets you remotely unlock and lock the doors.
The service is far from free — $17 a month, plus installation — but it’s not so much the service as the thought behind it that interests me. Earlier this week, Ford announced that all of its cars will have 4G LTE modems by 2020, the year that nationwide 5G is predicted to be available. I commented on how problem carmakers face with the difference in lifecycle between in-car technology and the cars the tech actually sits in. Keeping cars up-to-date is a difficult business when the state of the art changes so quickly, but a modular dongle that can be swapped out when newer tech becomes available is certainly a good start.