Apps on wheels

Apps on wheels

Apps on wheels

Automakers are finding ways to bring apps to your dashboard and change the way you drive, says John R Quain.

Smartphones are reshaping all aspects of our lives including the way we drive. Automakers this fall are introducing connected in-car systems that bring apps to the dashboard, but the features vary widely depending on how the connection is made between the car, the phone and the driver.

The overall idea is to give a driver the entertainment and communications features of a phone while avoiding the distraction of picking it up behind the wheel. Instead, select apps, like streaming music from Pandora or weather information, are sent from the phone to the car and displayed on the vehicle’s in-dash screen. Smartphone addicts can give up their handsets and toggle through apps using voice commands or buttons on the car’s console.

Shoppers will encounter two basic types of systems in showrooms this season. One leverages the ability of an iPhone or Android phone to wirelessly deliver all Web-based information to the car, including turn-by-turn directions, reviews from Yelp or local gas prices. The other embeds the communication system in the car itself. Some car manufacturers use a combination of both, and each has benefits and drawbacks.

The smartphone-centric approach was first championed by Ford with its Sync system. It required minimal equipment in the car, lowering the cost. In-car systems can add up to $1,500 (Rs 79,230) to a car’s price, while in some Fords, Sync is available for as little as $295 (Rs 15,581) . Furthermore, in-dash entertainment and information sources can be continually updated via new smartphone apps.

Acura, Honda and Subaru are taking a similar tack this fall. Acura’s coming 2013 RLX will use a suite of smartphone services from Aha, a content packager for mobile platforms. Aha shows up next to radio and navigation options on the car’s dashboard, but it relies on data sent from a Bluetooth or cable-connected phone to deliver hundreds of streaming Internet radio stations or audiobooks; it can even read Facebook posts aloud. Owners are not charged additional monthly fees unless they exceed the data cap of their cellphone company.

Aha’s service will also appear in two new vehicles with more mass appeal, the redesigned 2013 Honda Accord and updated 2013 Honda Crosstour. Called HondaLink, the system, which has yet to be priced, will deliver Facebook posts, Twitter alerts and streaming services like Slacker and Pandora. But systems that rely solely on a connected phone have significant drawbacks. When the handset leaves the car, so does the vehicle’s ability to communicate or receive commands remotely.

So without extra equipment, you cannot remotely start these cars. You also will not be able to locate a vehicle should it be stolen or go off course with a teenage driver. And if the phone is being used for navigation instructions and subsequently loses its cellular connection, the turn-by-turn alerts will also disappear.

Consequently, many car companies continue to focus on systems that also have two-way cellular connections built into the car. But these typically entail subscription charges.
For example, Mercedes-Benz’s second-generation Mbrace2 system includes a built-in cellular connection so that it can offer remote lock and unlock, as well as security features like the ability to monitor the car’s location. The starting subscription service costs $280 (Rs 14,789) a year.

To these, Mercedes has added apps for connected Android and iPhones, including Yelp restaurant reviews, Google Local Search and Facebook, which allows you only to check in. (That way friends at your destination know when to expect you.) The app feature is an additional $14 (Rs 739) a month.

Hyundai offers a similar suite of connected services under its Blue Link system. It includes remote diagnostics, as well as remote unlocking and tracking. Subscription packages start at $79 ( Rs 4,172) a year, but for all the services, including app support, the annual fee is $279( Rs 14,736).

Cadillac, whose parent company, General Motors, is known for its OnStar remote commands and live services like road assistance, is also adding apps via its new Cue system. Appearing first as standard in the 2013 Cadillac SRX (starting at over $37,000 or Rs 19,54,340), Cue is designed to emulate tabletlike controls and will include at least one smartphone-connected app, Pandora. With this system, streaming music from the Web will come via cellphone. This has the advantage of not burdening the OnStar network connection with additional data services. Cadillac offers the first year of OnStar free; basic plans start at $18.95 (Rs 1,003) a month.

GM is also pushing connected services in more modest vehicles. The new 2013 Chevy Spark, starting at around $12,245 ( Rs 6,46,780), has a Smartphone Link option on the dashboard that brings Pandora and Stitcher music services into the car from connected smartphone handsets.

The onslaught of infotainment from connected services and smartphones continues to pose the risk of distracted driving. Consequently, automakers are taking steps to mitigate the problem, affecting how drivers interact with the systems. While nearly all include some steering wheel-mounted button controls, Mercedes-Benz notably refuses to use touch screens in its dashboards; it considers them distracting. Conversely, the new Cadillac Cue system promotes its touch screen proudly and augments it with slight vibrations that owners feel when an on-screen button is touched.

Furthermore, voice controls vary widely among these competing systems. Some models, like the Lexus Entune, respond to a wide variety of naturally spoken commands.
Others, like Ford’s Sync, respond to only a specific lexicon, though it contains thousands of words.

Ultimately, such differences mean shoppers will have more to consider on their test drives. And you thought shopping for a smartphone was difficult.
Avoiding in-dash navigation options that can cost $800 (Rs 42,256) to $1,500 ( Rs 79,230), smartphone owners are increasingly opting for $50 (Rs 2,641) apps and free maps on their handsets to help them get around.

But navigating in a car with a cellphone can be awkward – and dangerous. To avoid looking down at a handset’s small screen, an awkward cradle is needed to mount a phone on the dashboard. Also, instructions from tiny cellphone speakers are often drowned out by road noise or music in the car.

A better, safer solution would be to feed a phone’s maps and instructions through the car’s larger, built-in display and sound system. Now, two automakers are allowing this to happen.

Ford has teamed up with the navigation company Telenav to enable Telenav’s Scout software to run on compatible vehicles outfitted with Ford’s Sync system and software called Applink. A $25 (Rs 1320) -a-year app, Car Connect, lets drivers connect Android phones to the dash. (An iPhone version is in the works.)

They can have maps displayed on the car’s screen, use hands-free voice commands and hear directions through the car’s sound system. Also included are traffic information, red-light camera warnings and speed trap alerts, features rarely found on in-dash systems.

Chevrolet’s new compact, the 2013 Spark, is the company’s first vehicle to offer a similar feature. Rather than storing expensive, obsolete maps and navigation in the dash, Spark’s MyLink program relies on a $50 (Rs 2,641) app that owners download to an iPhone or Android handset. Called BringGo, the app worked well in a test drive through New York City traffic, ably providing directions through various boroughs and rerouting automatically when the driver insisted on making a wrong turn.

Telenav, which also supplies the maps for Ford’s $800 (Rs 42,256) built-in navigation option, contends there will continue to be a market for an all-in-one, in-dash solution. But as the app generation grows and more drivers become comfortable connecting their phones to their cars, automakers may be forced to hand over the navigation reins to smartphones.

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