7 Ways to Use the Internet in Your Car

Cloud and other internet icons superimposed over a car cabin.

 Busakorn Pongparnit / Moment / Getty

If you don’t already use the internet in your car, you’re probably missing out. If you do already use the internet in your car, congratulations, you’re driving well ahead of the curve. Just make sure to keep your eyes on the road, unless you're behind the wheel of a level four or five autonomous car. In which case, this list is even more relevant.

Either way, you may be surprised to hear that the internet isn’t just for funny cat pictures anymore. Plug your car into the internet, and the options for entertainment and edification are nearly endless.

In fact, we’ll stick to just seven of the great ways to use the Internet in your car, just to try and keep things under control. And here they are:

01
of 07

Ditch Old-Fashioned Radio

phone internet car
Streaming infinite music from the cloud is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to using the Internet in your car. Pleasureofart / E+ / Getty

What We Like

  • Endless listening options

What We Don't Like

  • Wireless data can get expensive when streaming internet radio

Are you still listening to FM radio? Maybe, but probably not. What about AM Radio? Does anyone even remember what that is?

The radio industry had pinned its hopes on HD Radio, and is clinging onto OEM head units for dear life, but by now you’ve probably moved on to using your phone as an in-car music player or even signed up for a satellite radio subscription.

And that’s all fine, if you’re okay with a limited selection of music, or paying for something you probably only use in your car. If you’re not, well, then here comes the internet to the rescue.

Internet radio isn’t really radio at all, mainly because it’s a nebulous term that covers a huge spectrum of ways to listen to music via the internet. Some terrestrial radio stations have internet simulcasts, which allow you to listen to a station that’s halfway across the country, or even halfway across the world, through the magic of a wireless internet connection.

Or, if you prefer, you can opt for a free, or paid, internet radio service that offers either customized “stations” in the form of playlists that are tailored to your personal tastes, or on-demand access to virtually any song you care to hear.

Some head units come with built-in support for internet radio, and some cars even come with built-in internet access (and even act as wi-fi hotspots), putting all of these options and more right at your fingertips. In other cases, you’ll have to pipe your phone’s internet connection to your head unit via Bluetooth tethering, or just use your phone to run an internet radio app, and connect it to your head unit via your means of choice.

02
of 07

Never Get Lost Again

lost in car
Can a map pinpoint your location and suggest the fastest route out of there? I didn't think so!. Lori Andrews / Moment / Getty

What We Like

  • Offers a free alternative to expensive GPS units.

What We Don't Like

  • Some internet-based mapping applications stop working correctly if you lose connection, which is likely to happen eventually.

  • Trusting internet-based mapping applications can get you in trouble, so make sure to always use common sense when following directions.

Did your car come with a built-in navigation option? Great! But what about when that built-in nav option is a few years old, and new road construction has rendered it more or less useless?

You can always pay for an expensive upgrade, or just turn to the internet, where free mapping and route planning services are almost never out of date.

Check out our list of the best free turn-by-turn navigation apps to see what's out there.

03
of 07

Avoid Traffic Jams

avoid traffic jam
Probably should have gone a different way, huh. Ron Chapple / The Image Bank / Getty

What We Like

  • You can use your phone to avoid traffic.

What We Don't Like

  • Free traffic data isn't always accurate.

  • Apps like Waze only work when a lot of people in the area are using them.

Some GPS navigation units and GPS-enabled infotainment systems come with a live traffic data option, either included for free or as an additional purchase. This is an excellent feature if you live and commute in an area that sees a lot of traffic congestion since it allows you to circumvent bad snarls before you become hopelessly mired in the middle lane of a freeway that has suddenly turned into a parking lot.

If your nav unit doesn’t have a live traffic option, or you don’t want to pay for it, the internet has you covered there, too. Whether you go for an app, or just stick with the traffic data that’s available for free from most mapping and route-planning services, and sometimes also from local municipal sources, there’s no surer way to curb road rage than to just avoid getting into bad situations in the first place.

Apps like Waze essentially crowdsource this function, allowing you to tap into the combined knowledge and experience of hundreds or even thousands of drivers in your area.

04
of 07

Catch up on Work (or Just Play Hookey)

working at the beach
Who needs an office when you've got the Internet in your car?. Britt Erlanson / Cultura / Getty

What We Like

  • What's not to like about working at the beach?

What We Don't Like

  • Mobile data ins't cheap, so make sure your laptop is set to use a metered connection.

An internet connection from a mobile hotspot, or even a tetherable phone, plus a laptop and appropriate inverter can turn any car into a mobile office. Whether you just need to check your email on a long commute or road trip, or fire up Citrix from the beach and pretend like you’re really getting some work done, mobile internet is where it’s at.

05
of 07

Keep the Kids Entertained

kids in the back seat
Mobile Internet access means never having to hear "Are we there yet?". Tetra Images / Getty

What We Like

  • This is far more convenient than hauling around physical discs.

  • You don't have to listen to the same movie or show again for the hundredth time.

What We Don't Like

  • Again, mobile data isn't cheap. Check to see if any providers are offering a plan that offers unlimited data, or uncapped data when using a specific streaming service.

Let’s face it. The internet provides a tremendous wealth of entertainment options, including the aforementioned funny cat pictures, if you’re into that sort of thing, but most of them aren’t really aimed at you as the driver.

If you want to pull down hilarious Youtube videos via your phone’s internet connection and pipe them to your head unit’s high definition display while cruising down the freeway, that’s certainly your prerogative, although it may not be the safest decision.

Most of the in-car entertainment options—from watching time-shifted television to playing around with social media—are far more appropriate for your passengers, whether you’re carpooling to work, or trying to keep sane on a long family road trip.

06
of 07

Find the Nearest Gas Station, Largest Ball of Twine, Mystery Spot, etc...

night gas station
Is the next gas station going to be cheaper? Can you even reach the next gas station? Better ask the Internet!. VanDenEsker / E+ / Getty

What We Like

  • There's almost endless utility here, with the ability to track down nearby businesses and find cheap gas.

What We Don't Like

  • There really isn't any downside to this one.

Some GPS nav units come with built-in point of interest (POI) data, but nothing beats an old fashioned google search.

Some head units even come with this type of functionality, where you can search for specific information via an internet connection, but why not just fire up Yelp for a good restaurant on your route, or check out Gas Buddy to see where the cheapest gas is? 

07
of 07

Unlock the Potential of Telematics

phone car telematics
Need to unlock your car or start it remotely? There's an app for that!. Don Bayley / E+ / Getty

What We Like

  • Telematics can make your life a whole lot easier and even get you out of jams.

What We Don't Like

  • This is a more niche option, because not all vehicles have this functionality.

This is a huge category, and it’s really kind of the be-all end-all of why your car and the internet are two great things that go great together. Some cars have telematics systems with built-in cellular radios, which you can pair with an internet connection and app on your phone to do anything from unlocking your doors if you left your keys inside, honk the horn if you lost the car altogether, or even shut the engine down if the vehicle was stolen.

Other baked-in telematics and infotainment system features are only available if you bring your own internet connection along, like the built-in internet radio apps mentioned earlier. Ultimately, your in-car internet experience is what you make of it, and you can make quite a lot of it if you try.