As we spend more time with apps on smartphones, automakers are betting we’ll want to do the same in our cars. So they are providing Internet-connected systems labeled "infotainment" or "telematics" that essentially turn LCD screens in the dashboard into remote controls for apps.
More than 10 automakers offer such systems today or plan to by next year, in brands including Audi, BMW, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, MINI, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota.
Most of these systems have three types of apps in common:
- Connected audio
- Social media
- Search and navigation
Apps like Pandora do simple audio streaming, sending shuffled songs from the Internet to the vehicle's speakers. Internet radio services like Slacker, TuneIn and iHeartRadio, offer online channels that are programmed by DJs or provide traditional radio broadcasts that are simulcast online.
Pandora is featured or soon-to-be featured in 16 brands––including Acura, BMW, Cadillac, Kia and Scion. Slacker works in Ford autos and will be coming to Honda and Subaru vehicles later. TuneIn and iHeartRadio work with Ford vehicles, and iHeartRadio also works with Toyotas.
Automakers may charge hundreds of dollars for cars with these audio systems - for example, $295 on some Fords. They typically don't include the extra-cost or "upgrade" versions of apps. Slacker Premium Radio, for example, lets you play songs and albums on demand instead of just preprogrammed stations. It typically costs $9.99 per month.
Some systems work with Facebook and Twitter to send or receive updates using the in-dash display, or to read incoming updates and messages aloud through the vehicle's speakers. Facebook is available with BMW, MINI and Hyundai systems, and is coming soon to Mercedes-Benz vehicles, for example. Twitter is available with BMW and MINI systems.
To minimize distraction when the vehicle is moving, your Facebook posts are usually limited to preconfigured messages. MINI's choices include, for example, "On my way to [Destination] with [Distance to Destination]," and the app links to the car's GPS system to fill in the blanks.
Search and navigation
Other apps bolster the navigation system. Bing and Google search apps, for example, supplement the built-in point-of-interest (POI) database by enabling drivers to search for other locations using whatever keywords they want. Yelp and OpenTable apps help drivers find hotels or make a reservation at a restaurant, and send the results to the navigation system to provide directions.
Toyotas use Bing and OpenTable while BMW and soon Mercedes-Benz feature Google and Yelp.
Some brands, such as Ford, use the dashboard screen to control apps that reside in the smartphone, which connects with the vehicle's system using Bluetooth. These have the advantage of letting you use the apps as you have already configured them on your smartphone. Others, like the upcoming Mercedes-Benz system, called mbrace2, leverage a built-in cellular connection to control apps online. So you can use them with your smartphone switched off — or even if you don’t own a smartphone.
Look for ever-more creative apps as automakers challenge developers to come up with new ideas. A recently devised app from Roximity, for instance, was the winner of a competition sponsored by Ford. It combines a daily deals service with navigation, to alert you to bargains as you drive by them.
You can try connected cars from these brands today:
Upcoming connected car systems include: