‘Apps’ for the auto are coming

Image: Ford Sync with digital music player
Ford Sync, which lets consumers connect almost any mobile phone or digital media player with their vehicles using Bluetooth, will start having its own "apps," or programs, akin to those of the iPhone. One app will allow drivers to navigate Internet radio by favorites and genre using Sync’s voice command capability.Ford

You’re headed to a party but don’t know how to get there, so you decide to follow a friend. It always turns out the same: the lead car makes the light you don’t and then you’re lost, trying to figure out how to get there.

But soon your car could direct you with turn-by-turn announcements to follow the leading car so that you get to the party with no headaches.

Consumers are getting so accustomed to their smartphones performing near-miraculous feats that carmakers have realized that they need to exploit the features of the devices to put some of that magic on wheels.

Ford drivers will be able to run iPhone apps that do things like send navigation instructions from a leading car to the car behind it so that the follower doesn’t get lost if they're separated by traffic or stoplights. Another app lets drivers command an iPhone to select among Internet radio stations using the Sync voice recognition system, developed in conjunction with Microsoft, so they don’t take their eyes off the road to find a station. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Meanwhile, at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, Mercedes-Benz and Hughes Telematics will unveil the “mbrace” service, which will let drivers manage streaming music, locate points of interest or reply to e-mail, all by voice control. Like Ford, the company will create its own app store for mobile applications that run in its cars.

Chevy Volt charging app
Buyers of the all-electric Chevrolet Volt, due out in late 2010, will be able to schedule battery charging through their phone for the cheapest charging times (typically overnight, when electricity use costs less). The car will also send them a text or an e-mail if they forget to plug the vehicle in by a pre-determined time of day.

Ford and GM are exploring alternative paths to the same destination: mobile applications that integrate wireless communications, a portable computer and GPS receiver, a car’s knowledge of its own systems and surroundings, and car-based systems such as voice recognition for input or audio and video for output. 

GM is following a path, reminiscent of the old IBM mainframe model of centralized control, reliability and security. Ford is plotting a route more like that of networked PCs, relying on third-parties for contributions. Just as both kinds of computer systems provide valuable benefits to their customers today, so will the two approaches to mobile automotive applications likely survive to give consumers options.

General Motors is leveraging its OnStar telematics network and built-in cellular communications hardware to execute commands sent remotely from a smartphone. GM will launch the Volt with apps for the Apple iPhone, RIM’s BlackBerrys and Motorola's Droid phones. There will also be a Web app that will run on mobile browsers for phones that don’t have their own apps.

The mobile apps will let Volt drivers schedule charging and receive reminders when they’ve forgotten to plug it the car for the night. It will also let drivers pre-condition the car’s cabin temperature while it is still plugged in to shore power, rather than shortening the driving range by heating or cooling the car on battery power. Drivers can also receive a warning if charging is interrupted, and display vehicle performance data on their phones to compare fuel economy and miles driven on electric power with their friends.

“The first Volt owners can show off to their friends,” said Stephanie Brinley, senior manager of product analysis for market researcher AutoPacific, Inc. “This is a great brag point for these owners.”

OnStar readies apps
Using the OnStar network means that the car has its own phone to send and receive information to the driver when the driver is out of the car, enabling applications that aren’t possible with systems that rely on the driver’s own phone for communications from the car.

For example, popular OnStar services like remote door lock and unlock, light flash and horn blow, currently only available through a call to OnStar’s support center, will be possible directly from the customer’s phone.

The ability to manage the car remotely could help consumers who are unsure about the expense of the Volt’s purchase price — still an unknown — to buy it, said James Bell, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

“This will create a lot of hype for people who are on the fence about buying the Volt,” he said. “For those early embracers, this app will knock it out of the park for them.”

Will be used in other models
GM will ultimately spread the technology to other electric models that will benefit from the ability to remotely monitor and manage the car’s charging status, and also to conventional models whose drivers can appreciate the remote door unlock capability.

Ford, meanwhile, wants iPhone apps to run in ways that helps the driver. As examples, the company recently demonstrated the "Follow Me" app for following a friend who is also running the app, and SyncCast, which lets drivers navigate Internet radio by favorites and genre using Sync’s voice command capability.

Sync is standard equipment on many Ford models now, and on other more stripped-down models such as the Focus, it is a $395 option.

Ford will release a Sync developers' license which will let anyone write their own Sync applications, which they may then distribute through the app stores for each of the relevant smartphones.

Students app project
For demonstration purposes, Ford recruited students at the University of Michigan, Dearborn to devise and write its first apps, a task they completed in less than three months, even though none of them was an expert at programming for Apple products.

“None of us were familiar with developing for the Mac environment, so learning that took most of the time,” said student Ed Malinowski. “But programming for Sync is easy.”

Ford and the student programmers concluded that mini-apps that bridge existing apps to the Sync system would provide the best solution, merging popular social network applications to the car’s systems. But the necessary licensing to use such apps will take longer than the program’s planned 100-day window, so the students just wrote their own new apps instead.

Looking to the outside world will give Ford the benefit of a potentially huge source of creativity, while also likely giving it the headache of managing contributions from many programmers.

“We recognize that the world is much larger than we are and that there are a lot of smart people out there,” said K. Venkatesh Prasad, technical leader for Infotronics at Ford R & D.

“The explosive growth in apps comes from community-created development, software geeks chatting about code on social media sites, open collaboration. That is the genesis of app innovation, and that’s the spirit we wanted to capture.”

Ford will test these waters cautiously, conducting further testing with trusted partners for release in 2010 before making the Sync developers’ license more broadly available.