Inexpensive laptops, tablets, and portable DVD players nearly killed the market for factory-installed DVD players that cost $1,000 to $2,000. Now comes Cadillac with a reason to think again about integrated infotainment systems: high-speed internet, a Wi-Fi hub, big back seat displays, an HDMI jack, and reclining seats allow streaming media players and enjoyable entertainment. There’s also a Blu-ray player for shiny-disc rear entertainment.
The Rear Seat Package appears first on the 2016 Cadillac CT6, the full-size luxury/sport sedan Cadillac hopes will compete against Audi A8, BMW 7 Series, Lexus LS, and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Cadillac then will offer the rear seat package on its full-size Cadillac Escalade SUV.
The center armrest of the CT6 with the Rear Seat Package integrates an HDMI jack, two USB jacks, an audio line-in jack, and a remote control. Just below in the front of the seat cushion (photo right) is a 400-watt AC outlet, a 12-volt jack, and two more USB jacks (charge only), giving the CT6 six USB jacks total. The backs of the front seats integrate two 10-inch LCD displays. The car also has an integrated 4G LTE cellular data-and-voice modem and a Wi-Fi hotspot supporting seven simultaneous devices.
To make it work: Take a streaming media device such as as the Roku Streaming Stick (above), the Amazon Fire TV stick, or Google Chromecast. Plug it in to the HDMI jack, and connect a short USB cable between the stick and USB jack, which delivers power to the stick. Or if you have a larger streaming device such as Apple TV, connect it to the AC outlet.
Pair the stick with Wi-Fi. Use the car’s back seat remote (the smaller remote in the photo above) to select HDMI as the entertainment source, then choose the left, right, or both rear LCDs. Then switch to the streaming device remote and choose your entertainment.
A decade ago, I tested a KVH TracVision rear seat entertainment system that brought satellite TV to the car via a rooftop antenna costing $5,000. It’s still available, but the bulk of KVH satellite TV sales are now for motor homes and yachts. For individuals, the ongoing cost is no more than adding one additional receiver to your satellite TV package.
Streaming video has the potential to be an affordable, satellite successor that can be easily tested and adopted by more car owners. I was impressed by the range of video and audio entertainment available. Most of it is free or low-cost, other than the cost of the cellular data. It’s possible to get some live TV.
Using one media stick, a Google Chromecast, during a demo with Cadillac staff, I got crystal clear video from multiple sources. Using my own Roku 3500 media stick in a press fleet CT6, I had difficulty getting a watchable video stream. Every 3-10 seconds, the screen blanked for a frame or two, then returned. It wasn’t resolved during the time I worked with the car.
Cadillac says its engineers validated these streaming media devices: Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire Stick, Apple TV, and Roku. It has not validated game consoles such as Sony PlayStation or Microsoft Xbox, but believes there is “no reason why they couldn’t work here.” Based on that, I’m inclined to believe there was a glitch matching one particular media stick with one particular car. (We’ll update the story when we get a chance to test with a different Roku-and-car combination.)
The other challenge is the cost of data. Cadillac notes AT&T customers can sign up for an unlimited data package: They can, as part of the AT&T Mobile Share plan, add their car to an unlimited data plan for $40 a month. The AT&T Unlimited Plan is complicated. It requires you have both AT&T Wireless and DirecTV, in which case unlimited data is $100 per month for the first phone, and $40 per month for extra phones, tablets, or connected cars. AT&T notes, “After 22GB of data usage on a line in a bill cycle, AT&T may slow data speeds on that line when the network is congested.”
For discrete AT&T data plans, adding the car is $10 a month. AT&T’s published rates for fixed amounts of data range from 1GB per month for $30 to 10GB per month for $80 to 100GB per month for $450. Unused data rolls over and there’s no charge for going over the data cap, but data is slowed to 2G speeds or a maximum of 128 Kbps, which is barely enough to stream music.
If you’re not an AT&T customer, you can buy a data plan directly through GM’s OnStar system. It runs: 1GB, $10 per month; 4GB, $20 per month; 10GB per month, $40; 20GB spread over 12 months, $150; 250MB per day for occasional users such as vacationers, $5.
If you stream video, Netflix says you will use this much data per hour:
Other service providers say streaming media draws 120MB to 350MB per hour, or about 250MB per hour on average. For streaming standard-def video, you’d use 1GB to 3GB on a four-hour trip. So a 10MB monthly package may not go far when it’s shared with all the browsing the family does on its phones and tablets. If you were on the road and accidentally downloaded an Adobe Photoshop update over cellular, that could eat up the better part of a gigabyte.
Many cellular providers have backed away from offering unlimited data plans. What they want to offer is a plan that’s a fixed price, relatively affordable ($100 a month?) that works for 95% to 97% of users. It’s the handful who want to use a terabyte per month that cellular providers want to keep away from unlimited service. Providers could define the “deplorables” among data users as people who use, say, 2x or 5x the bandwidth of the 90th percentile user, and shunt them out of the unlimited plan.
The Cadillac CT6 is more than just a dazzling back-seat entertainment system. It’s a serious car. You’ve heard this before, that this or that Cadillac is finally able to go head to head with the best the Germans produce. Where “toe to toe with the Germans” was an intriguing claim with the Cadillac STS, CTS, and ATS that got more serious with each iteration, the 2016 and now 2017 Cadillac CT6 is the real deal.
The CT6 Platinum I drove had Cadillac’s entire array of options. It’s a fabulous highway tourer that was a good choice for a long holiday weekend trip from New Jersey to Cape Cod along Interstate 95. This kind of touring benefited less from the 5-second 0-60 time than from stop-and-go adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist (automatically pulling the car back if it veered onto the lane markings, although not self-centering), and blind spot detection. The air-cooled, vibrating, massaging seats allowed us to go farther before stopping to stretch. You could heat the seat back, but not the seat bottom — a nice touch if you have a sore back.
The MagneRide shock absorbers can vary their stiffness multiple times a second; the driver can dial in sporty or comfy settings. Surround vision (cameras on all four sides) was helpful pulling into and out of crowded parking spaces. Night vision picked up pedestrians and deer before I could see them on rural roads. The head-up display minimized distractions on crowded roads, presenting only the information you really needed: speed, cruise control speed, and next-turn information.
The back seat was huge, as was the trunk, which explains the car’s 204-inch length. That is a lot of car to park, even using the self-park (parallel parking). And there is talk that Cadillac might consider something even bigger than the CT6.
The 34-speaker Bose Panaray audio upgrade was fabulous, as it should be at a price of $100 a speaker. You owe it to yourself to play something better than 128Kbps MP3s. Cadillac CUE, the touchscreen interface, has a big screen and faster processor. The gear shift lever makes a handy wrist balance as you tap on the screen. There’s a jumpy touchpad you can use, too. CUE is better now, but not yet optimal. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are integrated, as is center stack control of Pandora (which must also be on your phone).
The disc player on our car was Blu-ray, less so that anyone needs 1920 x 1080 resolution on a 10-inch display than as a convenience if your collection is part DVD, part Blu-ray. A cubbyhole at the front of the console has a wireless charging pad. If your car doesn’t have the entertainment package and you really need to play CDs, a CD-only player is available for $250.
This is a big car at 204 inches long and 4,000 pounds of weight. It’s powered by a 265-hp turbocharged four with drive; or a 335-hp V6, or 404-hp twin-turbo V6 with all-wheel-drive. Prices range from $55,000 to $90,000. There are four trim lines (model variants):
Cadillac has done the nicest job so far of integrating HDMI, big back seat LCDs, Wi-Fi, and reclining seats into a single vehicle. But at best, Cadillac’s rear set infotainment package will improve the lives of just 20,000 to 25,000 families a year, which is what the best-selling big luxury car moves in a year. Mercedes S-Class sold 22,000 last year, and no one else sells more than 10,000. For Cadillac, it will help sales if its rear seat package moves down to more affordably priced cars, starting with the popular new Cadillac XT5 midsize crossover SUV, the big Cadillac ATS sedan, and the renewed Cadillac CTS sedan.
Among mainstream-priced vehicles, more than a few other automakers offer HDMI jacks as part of their rear entertainment systems, allowing passengers to plug in a tablet or laptop to play already-downloaded material or, if the car has both cellular data and a Wi-Fi hotspot, to use a streaming media stick for video. It’s a seamless experience, but it typically costs $1,000 plus.
None of this works in the front seat when the CT6 is moving. Mercedes-Benz sells an upgrade front display called SplitView ($700), that lets the driver and passenger see different views from the same screen. Alternating pixels are oriented at the driver and passenger, and the driver absolutely cannot see the passenger’s video playing. Cadillac knows of the technology, but so far demurs because of concerns: the vagaries of state laws (some say no video can be played in front when the car is moving, while others say no video can be played in front that the driver can see), reduced resolution (driver and passenger each see half the display’s pixels), and the need to write special drivers.
The cheapest CT6 with rear entertainment offered is $65,000, almost twice the average price being paid for a new car this year. Still, at the price level of higher end Cadillacs, targeted buyers (with incomes on the high side of $200,000) may be less sensitive to the economies gained from shopping around: You could get a decent add-on DVD system installed after taking delivery, with HDMI, for about $500. If the car has HDMI, you can plug streaming media sticks in there, too. Just add Wi-Fi. GM cars come standard with OnStar, and Wi-Fi hotspots are not uncommon. Other automakers are seeing the light and offering integrated telematics, even Ford, which is starting to offer Sync Connect. At the least, that lets you roll your own streaming video system with a tablet.
If you go with a factory-installed system, you’ll probably pay more. The number of automakers selling integrated rear entertainment systems for $500 rounds to about zero. On the other hand, you can roll the price of factory-installed rear entertainment into the monthly payments. It’s covered by insurance where add-on equipment may have a coverage cap (all accessories) of $1,000. Compared with hand-held tablets, there’s no arm fatigue when the LCD is mounted to the car. And my experience has been that whenever an aftermarket installer pulls up the carpet, peels back the roof liner fabric, or removes a trim panel, odds are something will creak, droop, or fall off before you move on to your next car. (High-end installers less so, which is why they’re worth the extra cost.)
Meanwhile, if you can afford a high-end sedan, Cadillac has many good reasons to look at the CT6. Its rear entertainment is a standout.
Now read: What is vehicle telematics?
We’re doing a special Rolling Update series this week on emerging car tech; stay tuned for more in-depth coverage as the week goes on.