Emerging TechnologyMobileApps Move Into Automotive

Apps Move Into Automotive

In a year, no major auto manufacturer will be without an integrated system in their cars that displays web data.

With Angry Birds already having conquered space and LG launching the Internet Refrigerator, it seemed like cars would be one of the last spots to be infiltrated by apps. Based on what we saw from Apple last week and what auto manufacturers have been announcing, it won’t be long before another web-connected screen is available to consumers – and to marketers.

Hello, Siri

Even the creepy John Malkovich ads (note to Apple: Zooey Deschanel is cute; Malkovich is not) can’t stop the juggernaut that is Siri. At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), the company announced a “Siri button” for BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Honda, and GM. Automakers are slow to act, so it will take a while, but Siri is just one more example of how in-car apps are starting to get serious.


Let’s take a look at what is available and what is coming, but first: do we really need another place to access our apps? Are apps in cars a gimmick? And most importantly, why not just use your phone? As with any additional screen for interactive media (TV, PC, phone, tablet, etc.), there are unique advantages to using in-car screens, including:

    1. They’re bigger. If you’re used to most of the in-car navigation systems, you’ve seen centrally located screens that, while resolution is fairly low, have a decent amount of real estate. These screens are about to get super-sized. The redesigned Lexus screen is over 12″ – significantly more space than many tablets. As resolution improves, that means cars can move away from custom interfaces and apps for everything and toward running third-party apps and even web experiences (in case you needed any additional reasons to love responsive web design, any time a “new” screen comes out, your responsive design is ready to accommodate it).
    2. More seamless integration. In addition to running third-party apps, the new in-car systems have a finger on the pulse of a car itself. That integration is what makes the platform special and will allow you to access information you can’t find in a device that isn’t part of the automobile. Running low on gas? The car could alert the driver to this and suggest nearby gas stations.

Better GPS. Think about how many times you lose your cellphone GPS signal while on the road; barring a very thick overgrowth of trees or a tunnel, that doesn’t happen with car GPS. It’s pretty simple: it’s got a much larger GPS antenna so it can keep in touch with the satellite and get information with less interference.

  • It’s always available and visible. This one can’t be overstated. Unless you have some crazy mounting system, the phone has to be put somewhere, and unless it’s in your hand (causing a further safety issue), it’s probably not very easy to view. And in many cases, as you’ll see below, you have the accommodation of steering wheel controls, the car’s microphone, and more.
  • It’s always powered. It’s nice not to have to worry about charging or running batteries low when something is part of the car hardware. Not a huge plus, but nice all the same.

Today Ford SYNC powered by Microsoft is definitely in the lead. It’s been around for a couple of years and is starting to get pretty interesting; when I saw the version at this year’s CES, it had made huge strides. In addition to the standard car functions of navigation, voice command, climate control, and entertainment center, SYNC has some interesting tricks. Plugging your phone into a USB port turns the car into a wireless access point over the phone’s connection. AppLink puts a smattering of apps including Pandora, Stitcher, NPR, OpenBeak (a Twitter client), and more on the screen with full access. Currently the Ford approach is to provide a custom interface to this limited set of apps that you have on your phone. It’s on the larger screen, uses the steering wheel and voice command, and can be launched with a voice command. Take that, Siri button. At $60 a year, SYNC is not free, but cars frequently come with three-year free trials.

Lexus and Toyota use a similar model to Ford’s SYNC. With Lexus, the service is called Enform; with Toyota, it’s called Entune. Outside of name, they seem to be identical. You install the Entune (or Enform) app, pay from $5 to $14 per month (depending on whether you just get apps for $5 or layer in traffic and SiriusXM), and start using Bing, Pandora, iHeartRadio, OpenTable, and a few others.

Mercedes is treading the same path with its Mbrace system. Again, the apps are limited with only six available, but these include Facebook and Yelp along with a different search partner (Google).

These services charge a monthly fee, but remember, because they operate through the driver’s smartphone, they also use the phone’s data service and bandwidth.

One innovation I expect to see soon is an automaker that simply mirrors a phone or tablet interface on the larger, in-dash screen. This would allow a less ambitious manufacturer to punt on the entire design and UI process and just let the car’s screen be controlled by the connected device with some additional basic car commands layered in. It’s an interesting concept and might actually be a winning customer experience – there is real value in not needing to learn another UI.

A Word About Safety

Do driver’s need any more distractions? Most certainly not. However, the argument can be made that with steering wheel controls, systems where information is read aloud, and a fixed screen, getting information via car-integrated applications is significantly safer than using the phone as is.

The Federal Government is paying attention as well, continuing to publish updates to its rules for in-car systems that take apps and current user trends into account. One auto manufacturer we spoke with recently was working on safety innovations designed to limit the driver’s interactions over 5 mph while letting a passenger who might be in the car interact all they want. The solution? If the driver has two hands on the wheel, make all functionality available. If a hand comes off the wheel, grey out the majority of the functions. Brilliant!

A Different Approach

Other cars are featuring multiple screens, with the driver’s focused on the act of driving and a larger, more active screen canted toward the passenger. Such is BMW’s approach to its “i” series, shown below in a still and on YouTube. (Full disclosure: my company partnered with BMW to help design the i3 screens’ interface, which debuted at the LA Auto Show.)


The new screens are a central part of BMW’s gorgeous next-generation cars. The company hasn’t yet announced app partners, but has created an i3 Mobility app that shows what kind of information is going to be available. By separating out the tasks of driving metrics, level of battery charge (the car is all-electric), and the like from entertainment content, BMW seems to be focusing on safety and on better interface.

Another Marketing Channel?

Cars are a particularly rich source of data; they know when we’re moving and where we stop; they also know our regular routes around town. This is a powerful combination for marketers. Think about stopping to get gas and being told there is a coupon for the Chipotle Grill next door. Sponsored results when looking for an ATM can allow a bank to provide a timely message to get cash and try their free checking.

Much has been made of sending coupons and messages as drivers are moving past a business, but I doubt we’ll see that kind of direct messaging. The annoyance, potential safety hazard, and impracticality of screeching to a halt to save $0.30 doesn’t seem plausible. Instead, imagine going to a “My Offers” area of the system before pulling out of the driveway and getting a list of coupons for businesses you’ll be near on your way to work. Created based on a user’s profile through active and passive customization, this idea could provide a sophisticated system of messaging and entice consumers to try new businesses. One player in the space, Roximity, provides real-time deals and is rumored to be a forthcoming addition to Ford’s SYNC service. It would make Ford the first automaker to test these concepts and keep its system in the lead.

Hyundai, Cadillac, Acura, and other automakers have been teasing their forthcoming systems. In a year, no major manufacturer will be without an integrated system that displays web data and every agency with an automotive account will be asked how they’re going to address the new channel. It might be time to start doing your research.

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