Carmakers let app developers drive innovation

  • Posted: Saturday, January 12, 2013 9:57 a.m.
AP photo
An industry affiliate tests out Ford’s SYNC connection and entertainment system inside a Ford Fusion at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Ford’s SYNC connects the car stereo and navigation system to a user’s mobile device.
AP photo An industry affiliate tests out Ford’s SYNC connection and entertainment system inside a Ford Fusion at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Ford’s SYNC connects the car stereo and navigation system to a user’s mobile device.

LAS VEGAS — It’s not wise to Google the nearest gas station, compose email, or use your smartphone to check the latest sports scores while driving. But many Americans do.

Drivers have grown so accustomed to their on-the-go tasks that automakers are increasingly trying to make those things easier to pull off with both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road.

As General Motors and Ford commissioned ideas from app makers this week, the possibilities for what you can do with your vehicle’s steering wheel buttons, microphone, speakers and internal gauges are quickly expanding.

How would you like to choose your favorite tune by simply uttering the song’s title, turn your car into a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, or respond to an ad you hear on the radio without lifting a finger?

At the International CES show, General Motors and Ford launched programs that will open their designs to developers, inviting them to create software applications for future car models. It’s a relatively new strategy for car makers, but one that many gadget manufacturers employ, including Apple, which did it for the original iPhone in 2007.

The programs free the automakers from having to keep pace with new technologies by tying the functionality of their cars’ internal systems to advances in smartphones.

Ford Motor Co.’s app developer program, called Sync AppLink, “is a way for (the company) not to worry about the next big app,” said product manager Julius Marchwicki.

General Motors Co. said its framework “gives developers a whole new sandbox, with wheels.”

In some ways, though, the current systems inside cars have a long ways to go to provide the functionality that smartphones have offered for years.

For instance, in a demo of Ford’s new integration with music service Rhapsody, you can wirelessly sync your phone with the car and listen to playlists you have already created by pressing the voice button on the steering wheel and saying “play playlist 1.”

But you can’t just choose a track by voice on a whim, which is part of what makes these unlimited streaming plans attractive even at $10 a month.

Saying “Bruno Mars” to your Ford car won’t pull up “Locked Out of Heaven,” although typing it on Rhapsody’s website or smartphone app can. The same is true of Pandora’s radio app in Ford cars.

General Motors showed off its new relationship with Apple’s Siri voice assistant, which is newly integrated in some of its cars including the Chevy Spark. Siri, however, only linked up to the car’s speaker and microphone and didn’t offer access to the car’s inner systems.

Rhapsody CEO Jon Irwin said that it’s really just the beginning for automakers to work more closely with high-tech content providers.

One company called Livio was looking to drum up some business from radio stations and automakers with a prototype for embedding tiny codes inside traditional FM radio streams.

The codes would allow cell phone users to respond to advertisements with a tap on their smartphone screen. The technology could one day enable companies to send coupons through traditional FM radio stations to drivers who let them know they’re interested.

The Livio Connect system “opens FM radio to two-way communication,” said marketing director Nicole Yelland. “No longer is it shouting at you. There’s a dialogue.”

Given that Google, Toyota and others have been testing driverless cars, it’s not hard to imagine the day when your smartphone will hear your stomach gurgle, get Burger King to send you a coupon, and then guide the car up to the drive-thru window for a quick bite.

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