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December 28, 2012

News & Features

In-car systems increasingly tap into apps and smartphones

New York Times News Service

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The Chevy Spark's Smartphone Link option allows for connection to smartphones. (General Motors)

The love affair with the automobile has nearly been matched by consumers' passion for smartphones. So what could be better than joining the two? Automakers are introducing connected in-car systems that bring apps to the dashboard.

Apps are sent from the phone to the car and displayed on the vehicle's in-dash screen. Smartphone users can toggle through apps using voice commands or buttons on the car's console or steering wheel.

Who has what
  • Smartphone services:
  • Aha (Acura, Honda, Subaru)
  • Sync (Ford)
  • Built-in services:
  • Blue Link (Hyundai)
  • CUE (Cadillac)
  • mbrace2 (Mercedes-Benz)
  • Smartphone Link (Chevrolet)

There are two basic types of systems. One allows an iPhone or Android phone to wirelessly deliver Web-based information to the car, including turn-by-turn directions, reviews from Yelp or local gas prices. The other embeds the communication system in the car itself. Some car manufacturers use a combination of both.

Smartphone systems

The smartphone-centric approach was introduced by Ford with its Sync system. It required minimal equipment in the car, lowering the cost. In-car systems can add up to $1,500 to a car's price, while in some Fords, Sync is available for as little as $295.

Acura, Honda and Subaru have taken a similar tack. Acura's 2013 RLX uses a suite of smartphone services from Aha, a content packager for mobile platforms. Aha shows up next to radio and navigation options on the car's dashboard, but it relies on data sent from a Bluetooth or cable-connected phone to deliver hundreds of streaming Internet radio stations or audiobooks; it can even read Facebook posts aloud. Owners aren't charged monthly fees unless they exceed the data cap of their cellphone company.

Aha's service is in Honda's 2013 Accord and Crosstour. Called HondaLink, the system delivers Facebook posts, Twitter alerts and streaming services such as Slacker and Pandora.

But systems that rely solely on a connected phone have drawbacks. When the handset leaves the car, so does the vehicle's ability to communicate or receive commands remotely.

Built-in connections

Consequently, many automakers focus on systems that have two-way cellular connections built into the car. These typically entail subscription charges. Mercedes-Benz's second-generation mbrace2 system includes a built-in cellular connection so that it can offer remote lock and unlock, as well as security features like the ability to monitor the car's location. A subscription service starts at $280 a year.

To these, Mercedes has added apps for Android and iPhones, including Yelp restaurant reviews, Google Local Search and Facebook. The app feature is an additional $14 a month.

Hyundai offers a similar suite of connected services under its Blue Link system. It includes remote diagnostics, as well as remote unlocking and tracking. Subscription packages start at $79 a year, but for all the services, including app support, the annual fee is $279.

Cadillac, whose parent company, General Motors, is known for its OnStar remote commands, is also adding apps via its new CUE system. Appearing first as standard in the 2013 Cadillac SRX, CUE is designed to emulate tabletlike controls and will include at least one smartphone-connected app, Pandora. Cadillac offers the first year of OnStar free; basic plans start at $18.95 a month.

GM also offers connected services for the 2013 Chevy Spark. A Smartphone Link option on the dashboard brings Pandora and Stitcher music services into the car from connected smartphones.

The new features mean shoppers will have more to consider on their test drives. And you thought shopping for a smartphone was difficult.


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