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Tech To Watch 2012: Apps Invade Autos

Forget cupholders. The next time you go car shopping, count the number of apps. So far, automakers have mostly focused on integrating apps such as Pandora, Facebook, and Twitter directly into their vehicles’ entertainment systems. But because those proprietary systems are difficult to update—and smartphones offer a much wider array of apps—providing connectivity for mobile devices is quickly becoming the way to go.

From Chrysler and Ford to General Motors and Hyundai, car manufacturers are allowing users to connect their smartphones directly to their car’s infotainment system via a USB cable or Bluetooth connection. Once the device is connected, the vehicle is able to identify it and automatically suck in compatible apps. Soon you'll even be able to see your smartphone's interface mirrored right on your dash.

Why It’s Important

By developing a link between a user’s smartphone and car, automakers are now able to give drivers access to their apps through a simple, easy-to-use interface.

“The basic idea is to extend digital use [of these apps] inside the car in a hassle-free manner, not to allow unlimited access of all apps inside the car, as it can be dangerous for driving conditions,” explained Praveen Chandrasekar, global program manager with Frost & Sullivan.

How It Will Change Your Life

Imagine hopping into your car, connecting your iPhone 4S, and asking Siri about your day’s schedule. Or telling your car to record your shopping list. Ford has already reached this level of smartphone integration with its MyFord Touch Applink system.

AppLink lets users voice control various apps while driving, placing an emphasis on safety. With Pandora, for example, you can say the name of your favorite artist or song to start playback, or skip or give thumb-up to tracks with your voice. AppsLink also works with Orangatame OpenBeak for receiving Twitter updates and three other music apps.

Several manufacturers and technology companies have formed the Car Connectivity Consortium. The CCC—which counts among its members General Motors, LG, Nokia, Toyota, and Volkswagen—has developed the MirrorLink standard. Like Ford’s AppLink system, MirrorLink connects a user’s smartphone to the vehicle through Bluetooth. Both systems also feature their own programming interface, which is available to app developers.

What makes MirrorLink different is that it can literally mirror what's on a smartphone's screen. Panasonic, for example, has a released Display-Audio system for its European Toyota iQ car. The accessory, called Toyota Touch Life, features a 7-inch touchscreen display that shows MirrorLink-enabled apps.


Ford has a head start. Its AppLink system premiered in 2011 editions of the Ford Fiesta, and will land in all of the automaker’s models this year. Toyota is also expected to make strides with MirrorLink this year, implementing it across its vehicle lineup as part of its Toyota Touch Life system.

Ford says it is working to unveil a host of new apps within the next year. “What we are going to be revealing a series of partners in new categories,” explained Doug VanDagens, global director of connected services solutions with Ford.

What remains to be seen is whether the NTSB's proposal to ban all cellphone use in vehicles could stall innovation in this category. The industry will need to prove that it can enhance hands-free convenience without compromising driver safety.