May 17, 2013

News & Features

Cars meld with smartphones as automakers add access to apps

San Jose Mercury News

ford_applink_Spotify_0517_604.jpg

Ford's SYNC AppLink controls smartphone apps such as Spotify via voice commands. (Ford)

Traditionally, consumers have selected cars largely on the basis of size, color, power and price. But two new factors are increasingly influencing their choice: The kind of wireless connection a car has, and the kinds of mobile applications it runs.

Noting the popularity of smartphones and the apps that run on them, carmakers are moving to make their vehicles "smarter" and more connected.

Connected cars
  • Some ways automakers are adding wireless connectivity and the ability to run or interact with mobile applications:
  • App central. Automakers are working with developers, allowing them to create apps that can interact with cars' built-in controls and touch screens and eventually tap into their sensors. Manufacturers are also working to standardize the "hooks" that developers can use to interact with cars.
  • Wireless features. Carmakers are starting to build wireless data modems into their vehicles. Tesla's Model S has a built-in 3G radio, and GM says it will include an LTE radio in all of its consumer vehicles starting next year.
  • Talking cars. Carmakers and the government are exploring systems that would allow cars to talk to each other, letting them share information on their current locations as well as traffic and weather conditions.

Some drivers already are able to access a few of the apps they enjoy on their smartphones, such as Pandora and Yelp. Soon, automakers plan to tap cars' wireless connections, sensors and built-in computers to allow drivers to connect to an even wider variety of apps. Doing so also offers drivers and their passengers information such as precise, real-time traffic and weather alerts and improved safety features.

"I call the car the ultimate mobile device," says Thilo Koslowski, vice president of the automotive practice at Gartner, a technology research firm. "We're just at the beginning of seeing how that device platform will become important and significant in its own right."

This year, about half of all cars sold in the U.S. will include support for apps, either by running them directly on their entertainment consoles or by allowing consumers to use those consoles to interact with apps on their smartphones, according to Juniper Research. By 2017, Juniper, a wireless industry research firm, believes that nearly all cars sold will be "app connected" in one of these two ways.

Smartphone-toting consumers are already interacting with apps in their cars, using them to get directions, listen to music or send text messages. Carmakers and industry analysts increasingly assume that these consumers want to be able to more easily interact with those apps or similar ones while driving. And there are growing safety concerns about distracted drivers focusing on their relatively tiny smartphone screens instead of on the road ahead.

"Car companies are realizing that people are extremely wedded to their smartphones. They don't want to put them down," says Tom Mutchler, senior automotive engineer at Consumer Reports. "If a car company can provide the information you want on your dashboard screen ... [that's] going to make buyers happy."

Mark Hull, a product manager at LinkedIn, says that the technology built into the entertainment console of his new Lexus RX 450h was a key consideration in his decision to purchase the vehicle. The SUV allows access to smartphone apps such as Pandora and Facebook; offers real-time sports, weather and traffic information; and includes a built-in navigation system.

"I looked at other cars, but I've always liked Lexus' technology better than other brands," says Hull, a San Jose, Calif., resident.

Connected cars could offer automakers other benefits besides brand loyalty and vehicle sales. Built-in wireless connections could allow them to offer add-on services such as real-time parking information. And automakers could eventually harvest data collected from connected cars to do things like keep track of mechanical problems or sell information to data collectors.

"Automakers see this opportunity for connected car technology to net them some benefits in many different ways," says Mark Boyadjis, a senior analyst in research firm IHS's automotive group. "Automakers can learn a lot about consumers and a lot about their vehicles."

Automakers are still trying to figure out the best way to make cars smarter and more connected. In some cases, they are building wireless connections into their cars and offering apps that run directly on the vehicles' entertainment consoles. In other cases, they rely on the wireless connections and apps built into drivers' smartphones.

Both approaches have their shortcomings. Because consumers replace cars far less frequently than phones, built-in systems can quickly become obsolete. Meanwhile, systems that rely on drivers' phones can't connect to an Internet radio station or emergency services if drivers forget to bring them or charge them.

Some analysts say future cars will likely offer a hybrid of the two approaches. "Our view is that you have to do both," says Greg Ross, director of business development at GM's global connected consumer group. "I think you have to accommodate [devices that are] brought in. And I think there are benefits to having a car always connected."

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