Smarter Cars? There's an App for That

By turning your car into the largest mobile telecommunications device you own, automakers hope to keep you productive, connected, informed, and entertained

Cars have been getting smarter for years, studded with suites of sensors and supporting electronics aimed at keeping them from crashing. But entertainment and convenience have rapidly caught up to safety as the impetus for new in-car electronics development. Because automakers typically spend three years developing and producing new cars—and new gadget candy to go with them—they’ve found themselves constantly playing catch-up with consumer electronics and consumer expectations. So car companies have teamed up with the makers of smartphone software platforms to integrate a spectacular array of apps designed for handsets with cars’ digital dashboards, center consoles, and speaker systems.

Take for instance Ford’s new Focus all-electric vehicle, which made a big splash at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month. It features a software application called MyFord Mobile.

The app, which runs on Ford’s proprietary Sync platform and is compatible with the BlackBerry, iPhone, and Android devices, links the car with the driver’s smartphone and home computer. The software lets the driver listen to a smartphone’s music library and lets passengers watch movies or TV shows. It delivers information such as when electricity prices are at their lowest (to allow for the cheapest battery recharging) and where the nearest charging stations are. And it allows a smartphone to function as a remote control, by means of a connection to cloud-based servers. This remote communication lets the handset keep tabs on the car’s location and the batteries’ state of charge. It will also let the driver start the Focus EV from indoors on a blustery January morning, then step into a car whose seats and steering wheel are already warm. The MyFord Mobile app lets the driver remotely start the car, turn on the heater or air conditioner, or unlock the doors from anywhere in the world (including beneath the bedcovers).

And because the system differentiates one driver’s key from another’s, it presents information on the reconfigurable 4-inch screens on either side of the speedometer in the current driver’s preferred color and style. The state of charge, for example, could be shown as a percentage of the full charge, as an estimate of the remaining miles before recharging, or as a simple bar that gets shorter as the batteries’ energy is consumed. This differentiation also works for utility and entertainment options; it automatically queues up driver A’s list of radio station presets, favorite mobile apps, and preferred display options for the 8-inch center console touch screen. Because MyFord Mobile links the Focus to the driver’s handset, it can also access his or her contact list for hands-free calling and read out e-mails and texts through the car’s speakers.

Ford and BMW handheld apps
Photos: Ford Motor Co. [left]; BMW [right].
[Left] The MyFord Mobile app turns the driver's smartphone into a remote control and monitoring device for the vehicle. A handset can unlock doors or provide status updates such as the batteries' state of charge. [Right] Here, a driver uses BMW's Connected Drive app—with the help of GPS—to pinpoint the location of his car in a parking lot. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Even before the first cars featuring apps made their debut, battle lines had been drawn. Vehicle manufacturers have mostly aligned themselves with the competitors in the smartphone market. Ford Sync, the platform on which MyFord Mobile runs, as well as Fiat’s Blue & Me and KIA Motors’ UVO all run on Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Automotive 7 software. Toyota’s Entune, the Multimedia Interface, or MMI, in Audi’s A8 sedan, and BMW’s ConnectedDrive run on software from QNX, which was just acquired by Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry smartphone. General Motors’ OnStar system, the Roewe 350 system from Chinese automaker SAIC, and AutoLinQ, from German third-party automotive system maker Continental, sit atop Google’s Android OS.

Ford is trying to position itself as a technological leader in the automotive industry with MyFord Mobile and Sync AppLink Voice Control, which puts the driver in control of all the Sync system’s capabilities via voice commands, but it has stiff competition from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Continental, and Toyota. Launched by Mercedes-Benz in November 2009, the Mbrace system, designed and engineered by Hughes Telematics of Atlanta, was the first telematics service on the market to give smartphones the power to remotely lock, unlock, or locate a car. It didn’t signal a revolution in the way the average driver interacts with his or her vehicle because when the German luxury vehicle maker offers a new technology or set of features, there is usually a multiyear wait for them to trickle down to cars whose sticker prices aren’t stratospheric.

mbrace
Image: Mercedes-Benz
Mercedes-Benz was a pioneer in linking smartphones with cars. Its Mbrace Mobile app creates an always-on digital connection between driver and car, even letting the car owner send driving directions to the vehicle when he or she is not behind the wheel. Click on photo for larger view.

The second generation of Mbrace  debuted last September. It introduced Mercedes-Benz Concierge, which not only opens the car to information from the outside but also makes some car-based information and entertainment options portable. The Mbrace Mobile Application 2.0 gives iPhone and Blackberry users single-phone-number access to recommendations for nearby entertainment and restaurant options, directions, traffic updates, and more, whether the person is in the car or not. The concierge then sends destination information to the smartphone or directly to the in-vehicle navigation system. With the Mbrace system’s latest wrinkle, the Drive2Friend service, the driver can dictate a friend’s mobile number and the app sends a text message reporting that the driver is trying to find the person. The friend has the option of allowing his or her location to be sent back to the car via cellular triangulation.

While Ford was showing off its wares at CES, Continental was also there showcasing the Android-based AutoLinQ system, which lets the driver connect to the car in three ways.

AutoLinQ’s Mobile View lets you to send text messages to your car; the smart vehicle can text you back with information such as its location. In this demo [Flash video], a smartphone user is shown making a remote inquiry about the status of his car. Mobile View reports that the sunroof is open and offers the option to close it or ignore the warning. When he taps Close on the handset’s touch screen, the sunroof’s glass panel glides shut. This type of call-and-response vehicle update also tells whether doors are closed and locked and whether the headlights or interior lights are on. Mobile View doesn’t wait for a query to alert the driver when the alarm is triggered, the battery is depleted, the air bag has been activated, or the internal temperature of the car is too high or low. And like MyFord Mobile, it turns the smartphone into a remote control for locking and unlocking the doors, starting the engine, flashing the lights, and more.

AutoLinQ’s Home View [Flash video] lets you download apps and configure vehicle settings from your home computer. Clickable tabs at the bottom of the Home View screen let the car owner move through screens showing a wealth of data on the car’s status, driver preferences, navigation information, and applications that can be downloaded or fine-tuned. The status menu tells whether the ignition is on and displays the fuel and motor oil levels, the pressure for each of the four tires, and much, much more.

Car View, in AutoLinQ, is for updating features from the driver’s seat. Car View provides the same information as Home View but lets the driver use the center console touch screen to download apps on the fly that provide better control of the car and the ability to remotely manipulate electronic devices back home. An app that sends an alert when a game or match in the driver’s favorite sport is about to appear on television also gives the option to activate a digital video recorder at home, pull up a Web site featuring periodic updates about the game, or listen to play-by-play on the radio.

Continental filling assistant
Image: Continental
Continental AG’s Filling Assistant app can graphically display whether a car’s tires have reached the proper pressure. Or it can make the car honk its horn when a tire is full. Click on photo for larger view.

Continental is also designing unique apps that will enhance vehicle performance. For instance, the Filling Assistant will detect underinflated tires and notify the driver. When the driver goes to inflate the tires, the Filling Assistant will report pressure information to the driver’s smartphone and honk the car’s horn or flash its lights to indicate when a tire has enough air.

"The number of applications that can be developed to improve the driving experience, safety, and vehicle performance is endless," says Kieran O’Sullivan, executive vice president for Continental’s Infotainment and Connectivity business unit. "What is critical is to bring only those apps and content that will be of value to the driver and the driving experience."

Not to be left out, Toyota, the world’s leading automaker, debuted the QNX-based Entune at CES 2011. Entune is an upgradable suite of entertainment, navigation, and information functions. "Consumers have grown accustomed to having the world at their fingertips through their mobile phones," says Jon Bucci, vice president of Toyota’s advanced technology department, who notes that putting them in the car is a natural evolution.

entune open table
Image: Toyota
Toyota’s Entune system features the OpenTable app, a godsend to travelers looking to make restaurant reservations in an unfamiliar city. Click on image for larger view.

After downloading the Toyota Entune app to a handset and syncing it with the Toyota vehicle, the driver can begin accessing content and services, including Bing for Web navigation and OpenTable, which can make reservations at any one of 15 000 restaurants, with directions sent seamlessly to the navigation system and information appearing on the center console. Entune also lets a driver get customizable real-time traffic updates, sports, weather, stocks, and information on prices at local fueling stations. The system doesn’t forget music, which has almost always been a part of the driving experience. Entune includes Iheartradio, which delivers roughly 750 local radio stations at the touch of a button.

The tide of apps extending handset capabilities to cars will only continue to rise. ABI Research, in Oyster Bay, N.Y., reports that the number of users of automotive apps will increase from 1.4 million in 2010 to more than 28 million by 2015. And according to Global Industry Analysts, the vehicle telematics market is expected to reach US $11.2 billion by 2015.

Who knows where the killer automotive apps will come from? Ford says it is reviewing more than a thousand new apps from independent developers. And new ones are landing on the virtual shelves in iPhone and Android app stores every day. A sampling of them includes: Carbonga, a $5 app for iPhones that prevents service stations from ripping you off, by downloading the diagnostic information that explains why the "Check Engine" light is on; Where Did We Park?, an app for Android phones that uses GPS to help you set a digital breadcrumb for finding your car in, say, a massive sports arena parking lot after a game; and Waze, which gives iPhone, Android, Symbian, and Windows Mobile smartphone owners turn-by-turn directions using real-time traffic conditions to set the route.

The question now becomes how automakers, always concerned about liability, will manage the dissemination of apps that can be downloaded to a car and activated while the multiton mobile device is on the road. They know they’ll stifle innovation if they create a closed market. But they must wrestle with how to effectively evaluate whether a piece of software will present a glitch that will cause erratic driving or take too much attention away from the actual operation of the vehicle.

"We need to manage the flow of information to the driver and ensure that the presentation of the information will not distract the driver," says Continental’s O’Sullivan. "Continental’s mission is to keep the driver focused on the road and their primary driving task."

Mohamed Alkady, CEO of after10studios in Santa Monica, Calif., which produced the Viper-SmartStart iPhone app that lets a driver start his car, lock or unlock the doors, or open the trunk from anywhere in the world, says automakers are still casting about for the right type of apps to present the consumer. It’s happening in part, he says, because automakers are using apps to create a connection between the driver experience and a particular car brand. The result of this marketing mission is that “what some automakers are looking for in apps and what they need to be looking for are not the same,” Alkady says.

Thilo Koslowski, the lead automotive industry analyst at Gartner, headquartered in Stamford, Conn., agrees. “In the world of desktop and handheld computing devices, there’s no problem with Apple’s statement that ‘There’s an app for that,’ meaning whatever you’d like to do is fine,” he says. “In the automotive world, the question has to be, ‘Should there be an app for that?’ ” Koslowski says it’s not about getting thousands of applications into the car but integrating the ones that matter most. “But the car manufacturers seem to be still searching, trying to find what are the ‘golden apps,’ ” he says. “In some cases, I think that they are lost.” As an example, he points to plans to implement automotive apps for social networking programs such as Facebook and Twitter, while consumers surveyed by the company say they want things such as map updates, information on points of interest and refueling stations located along the route they’re driving, weather, and Internet radio.

The app maker and the analyst agree that consumer choice will eventually sort out the automotive app market, causing efforts to be focused almost exclusively on taking applications from consumers’ phones that make sense when they’re behind the wheel and integrating them into the car itself.

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