Apps hit the road

Illustration by Christian Montenegro
Date:7 June 2011 Tags:, ,

Car electronics evolve quicker than new vehicles can be engineered, so manufacturers are turning to apps to continually add new features. By Larry Webster

In-vehicle entertainment and information systems – collectively known as infotainment – are quickly becoming as important to buyers as what’s under the bonnet. Last year in the USA, 4 out of every 5 Fords sold had some version of Sync, and other manufacturers are rushing to meet the demand. But there’s a problem: when it comes to gadgets, we’re conditioned to expect hyper-evolution, not the years it takes to engineer a new car. So manufacturers are now turning to app-based platforms –much like the ones on smartphones – to provide a continual feed of new features. Carmakers, however, are reluctant to open the doors to an uncharted flood of third-party developers.

“We want to retain the customer experience we’ve worked to establish,” says Stephan Durach, the director of BMW’s Palo Alto research lab. That means the apps, which either live on a smartphone, in the car or in the cloud, will use the interface already in the car’s dash. Or, as in the case of Ford’s AppLink, voice commands, which will be a required feature to minimise driver distraction. That’s an issue that will remain hot.

In any case, we’re in the early stage, and the available apps are already-familiar ones such as Pandora and Twitter. That could change quickly. Ford says it is currently reviewing 1 000 third-party submissions. GM recently announced a contest for university students to submit ideas that may one day lead to unforeseen capabilities. In the meantime, here’s a sampling of what’s coming or is already here.

Mini connected > Car-specific apps live on an iPhone but are displayed on the car’s screen and controlled by the dash knobs. The currently available apps (Pandora, Twitter, Web radio, a driving-efficiency coach and others) are available for free in Apple’s iTunes Store. Will soon work with non-Apple phones.

Best Feature > The Twitter app reads the car’s internal data and offers canned status updates such as “Heading to Chicago. It’s 22 degrees, the top is down and life is great!”

Availability > Currently on Minis equipped with the navigation system, and will soon join BMW’s line-up.

Toyota Entune > With Entune, your Bluetooth-enabled phone is a gateway to car-specific apps that live in the cloud. The apps are displayed on the navigation screen and offer some voice-controlled features such as Bing search. Presently, apps include OpenTable and Pandora, but will expand. One downside: The service will eventually
come with a not-yet-specified fee.

Best Feature > The Pandora mobile app uses the same familiar screen and functions as it does on your computer.

Availability > Coming this summer in the Prius v (a wagon version of the Prius) and in more cars later this year.

Ford Applink > In conjunction with Ford’s Sync system, the apps live on a variety of phones and connect to the car with either Bluetooth or a USB cable. Bonus: AppLink does not require the car to have a pricey factory navigation system, and Ford’s already relying heavily on voice commands.

Best Feature > For Pandora, say “thumbs up” when you like a song.

Availability > In the Ford Fiesta with the optional Sync, and in the Ford Mustang later this year.

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