Emerging TechnologyMobileEverything you need to know about building apps for connected cars

Everything you need to know about building apps for connected cars

The infotainment systems in modern vehicles not only sync with the driver’s smartphone for hands-free calls, but also allow use of apps installed on the phone – if the apps are compatible with the in-car system.

Navigation, traffic information, music, audio books, messaging, food ordering, hotel/restaurant booking, car safety, vehicle diagnostics and business specific applications.

There are plenty of apps that people have on their devices that would be useful to access through their new vehicle’s dashboard LCD – known as the human device interface (HDI), controlled via steering wheel buttons and voice activation.

Today, however, only a few smartphone apps that would be handy in-car actually work with infotainment systems. The market faces a number of barriers – not least, a proliferation of incompatible platforms – but the situation is improving.

As the market grows there will be an opportunity for app developers that have compelling concepts for in-car apps. But apps must be built – or re-built – for use on the road, and must conform to the guidelines… which are a lot stricter than smartphone apps.

Scott Lyons, connected vehicle and services organization, Ford Motor Company, explains:

We do not ask developers to create new apps from scratch but rather enable their currently shipping app to become ‘driveable’ which means it will work on AppLink.

We work with developers to help them create appropriate in-vehicle use cases (which are often only slight adjustments from the native smartphone experience) as we have to take in consideration controlling the experience via voice and to a certain extend on the 8-inch touchscreen.

Often developers want to offer too much to drivers and we are focused on ensuring core experiences are available to be used so as to make sure the drivers focus on the road while being able to still interact with the app.



Seven things you need to know about in-car apps:

  1. The market is immature – compared with the billions of smartphones out there, the number of connected cars is still very small, but increasing.According to IHS senior analyst Colin Bird: Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, (which he believes will be two of the biggest players) haven’t yet penetrated 1 million vehicles.
  2. Opportunity for first-mover advantage – fewer in-vehicle apps means compelling apps will stand out.Many car manufacturers – and some cross platform providers – are eager to recruit apps to bolster their slim portfolios, welcome contact from and will offer assistance to developers and help promote their apps.
  3. Fragmentation – there are lots of different platforms, many auto manufacturers have their own proprietary infotainment systems.This proliferation has made it difficult for manufacturers (with the exception of Ford) to attract more than a handful of app developers, which has encouraged auto brands to open up their vehicles to cross-platform systems: Android Auto; Apple CarPlay; Baidu CarLife (China); SmartDeviceLink (the open source version of Ford AppLink) and MirrorLink (Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC)). The platforms are discussed in detail below.
  4. Strict rules/guidelines on what is acceptable – apps that distract drivers, e.g. with video, multimedia advertising; games, or requirement for lengthy reading or typing are banned for obvious reasons.
  5. In-car apps require special features – most obviously, audio playback and control via voice activation and steering wheel buttons.
  6. Restrictive practices – Apple CarPlay and Android Auto restrict the type of third-party apps allowed on their platforms to just audio and messaging. Other platforms such as SmartDeviceLink, MirrorLink or individual platforms, such as Toyota are more open, making them obvious targets for developers of other apps – navigation, travel, eating, events, directories etc.
  7. There are alternative, more economical ways, to target drivers – the most straight-forward route to an in-car presence is via the car’s native in-car navigation system or popular third-party mapping and directory services.Read the previous column on How to put your business on the in-car map.

Which in-vehicle apps do people want?

Research conducted by IHS Automotive (April 2015) found that 45% of respondents would use in-vehicle apps if they helped enhance the driving experience.

For 24% accessing apps via their vehicle control system was a top priority (34% in China). The favorite app categories were: navigation (53%); weather (40%); music (38%); news (33%) and social networking (29%).


Colin Bird, senior analyst software, apps and services, IHS:

The most popular in-vehicle apps with consumers are navigation apps and music apps. Following that is messaging applications, like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, etc.

The number one app used by consumers is navigation. Navigation apps are possible with MirrorLink and navigation app makers are deploying resources to enable their apps for in-car. SmartDeviceLink will allow navigation apps also.

Neither Google nor Apple allow third-party navigation apps on their systems. I doubt Apple ever will, but I could see Google opening it up.

How difficult is it to develop in-vehicle apps and get them accredited? 

There are three rules to developing an in-vehicle app:

  1. It needs to be useful and practical;
  2. It must be easy and safe to use while driving;
  3. It must not distract drivers.

Start with the very useful Ford auto app developer site (which requires free sign-up). The Android developer site is also good, but only covers two categories of apps and (obviously) one type of smartphone.

Ford’s checklist of acceptable/prohibited functions for different types of app (connected home; productivity apps; purchase; music; news and information; sports; navigation and travel; health and wellness; and audio books) is a great indication of the changes that will have to be made to your app to make appropriate for use in-car.

Similarly the approval criteria spells out what won’t be allowed, including: image rich content, video, long form text, games and interactive advertising.

Guidelines and approval criteria vary across platforms. But Ford’s is a good barometer of acceptability.

Colin Bird, IHS explains how the development process works for different platforms:

Google has very simple to use APK, developers must enable their app to work with the latest Android framework API and declare the app’s function which is then qualified by Google. Messenger and Music apps can do this for Android Auto.

Apple has a similar tree-based (yes/no) app framework for music apps. There’s also an OEM dev kit to port over OEM car-specific apps like a driving coach, or telematics tool, but none of been qualified or launched yet. The delay is mostly on Apple’s side in terms of its stringent marketing/UX qualifications.

There are specific design requirements apps must meet to qualify (for instance, the app can’t display animated elements, no task can take more than six steps and the app cannot display visual advertisement text etc.) and depending on the existing application this may require additional work.

AppLink/SmartDeviceLink has a simple and open framework with 15 templates to choose from. Developing for MirrorLink and native infotainment app experiences is a little more complicated because they require the developer to build out an in-car HMI experience, while AppLink, CarPlay and Android Auto go with a templated approach.


How long does it take?

According to the case study the project to make the NPR News App compatible with Ford Sync – so drivers can use the radio app with voice commands and steering wheel controls – took a dedicated a designer, product owner and iOS developer for 3-4 months.

Approval times will vary with platforms. Apple’s app approval process is renowned for taking considerably longer than rivals.

But will drivers want it/use it?

Before rushing headlong you must establish if there is a market.

  • Start by contacting each of the main platforms to assess if they (and customers) are likely to be receptive to your app. If these platforms will not approve your app, it is going nowhere.
  • Then conduct a viability test.

Fraser Campbell, CEO of Wcities the developer of Cityseeker (a city guide) and Eventseeker (a going-out guide) which are available for Ford’s Sync and Jaguar Land Rover’s InControl among others.

He explains:

Not all developers should expand into car apps. The use case is paramount to whether it should be available in the car. You really need to design with the use case first, the integration second, and then the distribution third. (Ford, Google, Apple etc). The technical development is not the hard part, but the design and interaction.

There are certain use cases that the companies are promoting, and certain ways to interact with services within the vehicles. Apple/Android you are currently limited to Audio/simple messaging. With Ford, the applications should be controlled by audio commands, and now simple touch commands to perform the necessary function.

We have seen great exposure through our partnerships. In addition, we have learned a lot with how the future of interaction will need to occur not only in cars, but through a lot of other ways we interact with machines. Voice is going to be paramount, ease of use, and simplicity. All of which make you really focusing on building a simple, useful product.


The platforms

Auto manufacturers have been their own worst enemies. Each of auto manufacturers and many of the after-sales hardware manufacturers have their own proprietary offering.

So for example, Toyota has Entune, Hyundai’s has BlueLink, Jaguar Land Rover has InControl and Ford has Sync AppLink (now open source, see below).

This means that each app has to be reworked to a) include each manufacturer’s APIs (application program interface); b) conform to differing guidelines and then c) be resubmitted for approval to each car company.

This rigmarole has made companies reluctant to rush into in-car apps. This is why most auto manufacturers have only managed to attract a handful of apps to their platforms – with the notable exception of Ford.

But this reluctance makes the more ambitious car companies much more receptive to developers’ ideas. Ford runs regular developer days and has been aggressively recruits apps to its platform in key geographies (US, Europe, China and India). Ford is approaching 100 AppLink apps worldwide.


To make the platform more attractive to app developers, Ford has opened up AppLink to its rivals, the open-source version is called SmartDeviceLink (SDL).

This means that apps that have been (re)developed for Ford’s platform will sync with partner manufacturers’ infotainment systems also, subject to approvals.

Toyota is the first rival auto brand to commit to SDL to enhance its Entune platform (which already includes Yelp, Pandora, OpenTable and Facebook Places) for future vehicles.

Other manufacturers, including PSA Peugeot Citroën, Honda, Subaru and Mazda are also investigating adopting the SDL standard.

Anthony Novak, Entune/in-cabin technology educator, Toyota:

A major challenge we have heard from app developers is that it has been difficult for them to develop apps for auto manufacturers since each has been using its own proprietary system so app developers have to create unique builds for each automaker.

App developers often have to prioritize which automaker(s) they work with and thus cannot reach the same audience they could with their standalone iPhone and Android smartphone apps. We believe SmartDeviceLink can potentially help the automakers and app developers overcome this challenge.


Cross-platform development

To make matters more confusing there are a number of cross-platform players, offering the same promise to developers: develop apps that will work a cross-section of infotainment systems. The main players are Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, Baidu CarLife, MirrorLink and the aforementioned SmartDeviceLink.

Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, Baidu CarLife and MirrorLink all work in a similar way. The entire infotainment system operates on the smartphone and is ‘projected’ onto LCD screen embedded into the car’s dash, via a USB or wireless connection. The driver controls the apps using voice commands or buttons on the steering wheel.

A number of auto brands have announced support for each platform. Some, such as VW are backing multiple platforms (Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, MirrorLink and Baidu CarLife).

1) Android Auto

Currently Android Auto has a roster of 52 apps according to the Play Store.

It is supported by, but is not necessarily available in cars from, 38 auto brands. Today only audio (i.e. music, stories) and messaging apps are allowed. See developer pages for more information. Examples include WhatsApp Messenger and Spotify.

In January 2014, Google and partners founded the Open Automotive Alliance, which includes 20 auto members. Notably the OAA website has not been updated since June 2014 and has no contact details, which doesn’t look promising.

2) Apple CarPlay

Apple CarPlay currently lists only 14 third-party apps at the time of writing, but IHS believes it is closer to 30.

These are mostly audio apps – radio, podcasts and books. Examples include Audiobooks and iHeartRadio. CarPlay is supported by 40 auto brands, with the expectation that it will be included in more than 100 vehicle models in 2016/7.

3) MirrorLink

MirrorLink currently lists 12 apps at the time of writing, but includes travel and navigation apps, as well as audio. Examples include iCoyote and Parkopedia. MirrorLink is also used by approximately 55 own-brand apps, such as these VW apps.

The MirrorLink specification is controlled by the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC), which also certifies apps and cars. CCC members include 17 auto brands and nine handset brands including Microsoft and BlackBerry, but presently only works with Android phones. The CCC hopes to make MirrorLink a global standard.

The advantage of MirrorLink (over rival platforms) for developers is that the CCC is not prescriptive about business case, claims Alan Ewing, president and executive director of the Car Connectivity Consortium:

Our approach has been to create a fair playing field for the app developers (large and small) to work. I see a lot of attempts to limit the type of number of applications in a specific category from some of the other approaches. We feel that the ecosystem must be completely open in order to thrive.

We stay out of the business case and give the app developers the maximum freedom within the constraints of driver distraction. Our only restrictions are based on driver distraction.

4) Baidu CarLife

Baidu (the dominant player mapping (70% market share) and internet search in China) has won commitments from many of the leading auto manufacturers for its infotainment system CarLife.

It is already installed in 10 models (including from Hyundai, Kia, Cadillac and Chevrolet, with Audi and Cadillac models coming soon). It works with either Android or iOS smartphones.

The company wouldn’t say how many apps there are on platform, but said most third-party apps are music apps e.g. Kaola FM and NetEase Cloud Music. But it is clear that Baidu has ambitions for CarLife.

This from Yan Shuang, international communications manager, Baidu:

Some third-party services on CarLife are directly incorporated into its basic features instead of having a standalone app. For example, CarLife has emergency medical assistance service provided by mobile health company HealthLink, restaurants recommendations and queuing service from 9now.com, and nearby parking lot search service from ParkingWe.

We’re also planning on integrating payment service into CarLife, e.g. you can directly pay through CarLife when parking, or at for a gas refill.


Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion in Shanghai, Mai 2015 Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion at Shanghai, May 2015
Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion in Shanghai, Mai 2015
Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion at Shanghai, May 2015

Mercedes-Benz plans to introduce CarLife to vehicles sold in China. Benjamin Oberkersch, Daimler AG spokesman for connected car and infotainment told ClickZ:

From a technical point of view, Baidu CarLife is similar to Apple’s CarPlay or Google’s Android Auto. The complete infotainment system runs on the smartphone and the screen in the cars is used to show the information. So, people who are used to use their iOS based system / Google Now, may use it within the car.

As there are some restrictions within China with the services of Apple and Google (e.g. free internet access), a systems based on Baidu might have some advantages. And of course, within China, people are used to use Baidu services, so they are used to the Baidu look & feel.

5) SmartDeviceLink (SDL) 

SDL is the open-sourced version of Ford’s AppLink. Rather than replacing vehicle’s infotainment system with one running on the smartphone – either Android or iOS – SDL creates an interface between the car’s system and the apps on the smartphone, to help create a more seamless experience for the driver. 

Ford’s Scott Lyons:

Toyota is the first other to commit to adoption of SDL with PSA, Renault-Nissan, Subaru and Honda all exploring adopting it in future. What this will mean is that an app enabled to work with SDL will technically work across all OEMs who have adopted the platform.

However, it is up to the OEM and app developer to decide whether to make it available and this will be decided on a case by case basis.


Most auto manufacturers and most platform providers will welcome contact from companies interested in developing for their platforms. Contact them through the website.

Viability of in-car apps for your brand

While the connected car presents a good opportunity for brands, in-vehicle apps will not suitable for all brands or services.

Do your research and make sure you contact the various brands and platforms to gauge their receptiveness.

Greg Basich, senior analyst, Strategy Analytics Automotive Practice, offers the following check list:

Is the brand/app is a good fit for cars and for use while driving? Next, if the app is a good fit, I’d strongly suggest they look at cross-platform solutions, such as SmartDeviceLink (Ford and Toyota have large sales volumes), Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Baidu’s CarLife in China.

That said, there is a huge difference between making sure your business’ information shows up in navigation searches versus developing an entirely separate app.

Evaluate: does the brand really need a separate in-vehicle app? Is it worth the time, effort, and cost to develop? What kind of traction have other automotive apps had?

This is Part 13 of the ClickZ ‘DNA of mobile-friendly web’ series.

Here are the recent ones:

Andy Favell is ClickZ columnist on mobile. He is a London-based freelance mobile/digital consultant, journalist and web editor. Contact him via LinkedIn or Twitter. 


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