One of the most innovative automotive technologies at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is something most drivers already own: a smartphone.
Android or iPhone, it doesn't matter; the car of the near future will enable mobile devices to double as car keys and to alert drivers if their vehicles have been hit while parked. And that's just the start. Among other tasks, phones soon will be used to verify that the driver is, in fact, the car's owner. They'll even be able to prove a driver's safe driving record to insurance companies and coach sports-car owners on setting up a turn.
It's called the connected car. And if you thought it was neat just to be able to talk hands-free via Bluetooth, that's only the beginning. At this week's CES, some of the world's largest automakers demonstrated different strategies for leveraging cellphone services and making them accessible through vehicle dashboards, steering wheels and navigation screens.
"It's a little bit like 50 years ago when hot-rodding first came on the scene," said Scott Fosgard, communications "infotainment" manager for General Motors. "People were customizing their cars through the engine. Today, people are customizing their cars through what we once thought was a radio. With apps, I can make my Chevrolet Malibu different from your Chevrolet Malibu just like your iPhone is different from my iPhone."
General Motors and Ford Motor Co. both unveiled new music, news and points-of-interest applications that will be available in upcoming GM vehicles equipped with MyLink and immediately in Ford cars with Sync AppLink. In select 2014 model-year vehicles, General Motors will allow drivers to update their cars with manufacturer-approved apps as they become available. Those U.S. automakers announced programs this week that will allow software developers to access the manufacturers' vehicle frameworks and accelerate the integration of new apps with their cars' controls, using voice recognition, display screens, buttons and microphones.
Many of the apps available in Ford and General Motors cars are lifestyle-oriented, originally designed to be useful outside of a car. But what's coming down the pike is entirely different.
"These are apps created specifically for the car," said Fosgard, who at a "hackathon," or programming conference, in Las Vegas this week fielded 200 developer pitches for apps that keep tabs on a car's systems and advise drivers when they need service, or that track a driver's acceleration habits and following distances, among other things.
More than 1 billion smartphones are in use globally, according to Ford Vice President of Engineering Hau Thai-Tang, and to date more than 55 billion apps have been downloaded worldwide. With another billion smartphones expected to be in use by 2015, Thai-Tang said, "Smartphone owners want to use the fully expanded capabilities of their phones in the car."
For now, many of them are doing so in a manner that isn't safe.
Smartphone users are twice as likely as other phone users to interact with their phones' touch screens and keypads while driving if the technology embedded in their vehicles doesn't meet their needs, Thai-Tang said, adding that recent studies have shown smartphone users increasingly are using their devices to access the Internet while in a car.
"The issue today is that consumers want to access their cellphone content while driving on the road, and the only way to do that is to use their phones while driving, which is not safe and in most states is illegal," said Jake Sigal, founder of Michigan-based Livio Connect, a system that makes apps accessible through a vehicle's controls. Livio Connect is available in the 2013 Chevrolet Spark, an entry-level minicar that uses the system to access the global radio-station and podcast app TuneIn via voice commands.
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