DETROIT — Despite the recent frenzy of fear over the dangers of driving while distracted, automakers are increasingly bringing the Internet into vehicles, including a slew of new smartphone apps that make it easier for people to manage their lives while in their cars–or control their cars when they’re away from them.
“The automobile is no longer a communications dead zone that prohibits drivers from staying connected to friends and family,” said Anna Buettner, an analyst at iSuppli, a consulting firm that specializes in automotive electronics.
“With the expanding array of communications options, many drivers are willing to take the risk of an accident simply because they want to read or reply to a text message or check and update their preferred social media site,” Buettner wrote in a recent report. “Finding and implementing a way to safely integrate social networking and other apps in the car is more feasible than fighting the trend.”
“The action is about allowing customers to access the existing apps that they know, love and are addicted to, such as Pandora,” says Ford spokesman Alan Hall. The personalized Internet radio service has more than 60 million users, and one-third of them use Pandora in the car, says Hall. That means that millions of drivers are either wearing their headphones or plugging in through an auxiliary jack. Either way, the driver needs to take his eyes of the road and hands off the steering wheel to pick up his smartphone and control the app.
With Ford’s new Sync Applink, available first on the new Ford Fiesta, you can use voice commands to control Pandora and other smartphone apps. You could give a command to start Pandora, for instance, and then request “Play station Coldplay radio” and it will play through the car’s audio system. Drivers can even say “Thumb Up” if they like the song, to personalize the experience. It works with Bluetooth-connected Android and BlackBerry phones, but needs a USB cable with the iPhone. Ford says it is the first carmaker to allow voice control of your smartphone while driving.
OnStar, GM’s safety and security system, can also link to your smartphone. You can use the phone to remotely start the engine and cool off the car on a hot day, or lock it as you’re boarding a plane. You can also use it to get an up-to-date health report on your vehicle, including key diagnostic information, like how much fuel you have, when you need to change the oil and what the current odometer reading is. Following Ford, OnStar is testing a voice communications app for Android mobile phones that enables drivers to send and receive text messages and Facebook updates using Bluetooth-connected phones.
For buyers of the plug-in Chevrolet Volt, there’s also a new mobile app that allows drivers to program the car’s charging schedule, check the battery charge and EV range or pre-condition the cabin. Ford will have a similar app for its upcoming Focus electric car.
Mercedes Benz’ mobile system, called mbrace, lets you send directions straight to your car, from your phone or laptop. There’s also a networking function called Drive2Friend, which enables customers to connect and navigate to contacts or “friends.” New features can be added easily because the system is built on a flexible architecture developed by Hughes Telematics. The latest version lets customers access Mercedes’ in-car concierge services even when they’re not in the car.
Automakers have their own reasons for wanting to connect your car to the Internet. “The value propositions for having car as a node on the network are tremendous,” explained Erik Goldman, president of Hughes Telematics, which is working with other carmakers in addition to Mercedes. “You can pull diagnostic data for manufacturers to improve engineering, address warranty issues and provide information to dealers.” A dealer who knows you’re in the final year of a lease, for example, could see that you’re about to exceed your contracted mileage limit and might call to help you avoid penalties by putting you in your next car, he said.
So far there is no killer app for the automobile. Just as with an iPhone, the value depends on what’s relevant to you. Some offer convenience–sending directions to a restaurant from your phone to your car’s navigation system, for instance–while others are as simple as helping you find a space at the mall the week before Christmas. BlackBerry Traffic, from QNX Software Systems Co., is a real-time traffic app that creates heat maps and can give drivers turn-by-turn advice to route them around traffic jams.
“Fifteen years ago this stuff didn’t work because the mobile data didn’t exist,” said Derek Kuhn, vice president of sales and marketing for QNX, which was purchased last year by BlackBerry maker Research in Motion. Last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, QNX unveiled a new system for BMW that will read e-mails and text messages to drivers.
And that’s just the beginning. Soon you’ll be able to download apps that can track your teenager in the family car. Did she drive faster than 70 miles per hour? Did she drive outside parent-set boundaries?
The opportunities–and privacy concerns–are endless, but the auto industry’s challenge is keeping up with the rapidly changing electronics field so that in-car technology doesn’t become obsolete as soon as the car hits the market.
There’s an inherent mismatch between development time in the electronics industry and the auto industry. Electronics are updated every six months, but automakers lock down engineering specifications up to three years before the vehicle goes on sale. Add six or seven years in your driveway and you’re looking at a 10-year technology lifespan.
If Microsoft can update your laptop over the Web at any time, why can’t carmakers reprogram their vehicles over the air?
They can, and they will.