A car's a car, but the car's apps make the difference

A car's a car, but the car's apps make the difference

Car apps represent a sea change in how people use their cars

Car apps: In a few years, we'll wonder how we did without them, just as we have with smartphones and apps since Apple introduced the iPhone seven years ago (January 9, 2007, in fact). These apps can be used either to control basic car functions or do something while in the car, such as finding a pizza place wherever you are, or ordering the pizza.

Yes, you can already find and order a pizza from your phone, but you shouldn't be doing that while driving. These apps aim to make the act of finding and ordering a pizza--or finding a parking place, or keeping up with social media--safer and perhaps even easier from your car than it is from your phone in the car. They represent a sea change in how people use their cars--not just for simple mobility, but for getting things done while mobile--and they were the biggest car-tech news out of CES 2014.

Your TV has a remote, and your car should, too

Just last night I was walking to my car after work when suddenly the car next to mine started with a roar--without anyone in it. I jumped, and then I realized, Oh: This is the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and it has the UConnect remote-control app that we tried last fall. As I clicked a button on my key fob to unlock my car--so '90s--the guy who owned the Grand Cherokee had started and unlocked the car remotely, and he just jumped in and left while I was still fumbling around for my seat belt. Even if you don't care about newfangled infotainment systems or whiz-bang safety features, you'd probably love to have a remote-control app like this for your car.

They're trickling out, though slower than I expected. I tried the AcuraLink app on the MDX and RLX last fall and had a jolly time not just locking and unlocking the car, but messing with the doors, windows, and tires so I could see the app tell me whether something was open or in need of inflation. It could even tell me what my fluid levels were. I can't be lazy and not check my oil anymore. The app does it for me. But Acura offers it just for those two cars currently.

At CES I met with Ford's Bill Frykman, part of the team that brought out the MyFord Mobile app to help manage the charge on the company's small herd of plug-in vehicles. In addition to lock/unlock and climate control, the app even lets you publish your charging and driving data to social media so you can show off how green you're being with your car.

Right now, the only other Ford car with an app is Lincoln's upcoming 2015 MKC crossover, with its MyLincoln Mobile app. This car was announced in December and isn't even out yet. When I asked Frykman why remote-control apps hadn't been rolled out to Ford's entire product line (minus the charging stuff that the gas-powered cars don't need), Bill gave me a little smile and counseled patience. Grrr!

Find the pizza and order it safely with an app

This really happened: While visiting the Ford booth, I stopped in front of a huge banner showing the logos of all the apps now available with Ford's SYNC AppLink (the company announced some new ones at CES). A guy appeared beside me and asked me nicely to move over a bit. I obliged, and he posed so his friend could photograph him pointing at one of the logos--here's me with my car app! He was pointing at the Domino's pizza-ordering app.

Ford and GM continue to be in the forefront of app development. Ford's even encouraging developers to tinker with an open-source platform to generate new ideas faster (but safely removed from the in-car product). At CES, Chevrolet announced its AppShop, which will open with about a dozen apps, ready to be enjoyed with the 4G LTE connectivity that will be integrated into 2015 models later this year. Chevy also showed off the performance apps for the new Corvette Stingray at CES (and we'd already tried the performance apps for the Dodge Challenge SRT). And Volvo joined the party with the launch of its Sensus Connect infotainment system, which includes apps for music, parking, and even Wikipedia.

Hyundai got the jump on them all with one thing, though: Google Glass. At CES the company announced that its 2015 Hyundai Genesis would have an app for that. The Glass app currently mirrors what the phone-based, Genesis Intelligent Assistant remote-control app can do--but that's a lot: In addition to controlling the car and its Blue Link infotainment system, the app can pull data from your phone and online sources to send proactive reminders related to your driving plans, such as checking traffic and suggesting you leave a little earlier for your appointment. As for the Glass app, Hyundai promises that it will continue to evolve into "a special experience created specifically for the new wearable technology." Top that.

Some high-tech hope for older cars

All is not lost for people with older cars, either. Pioneer's new NEX infotainment systems can replace your existing (2-DIN, or double-height) car stereo and bring a touchscreen interface plus an app store.

The NEX systems are also compatible with MirrorLink, a young standard for replicating your phone's screen on your car's display that's being developed by the Car Connectivity Consortium. In addition to third-party audio manufacturers like Pioneer who want to be compatible with everything (Alpine and Panasonic are charter members), CCC's members include major smartphone (Samsung, HTC) and auto (Daimler, General Motors) manufacturers, though notably not Apple with its iPhone, nor Ford with its SYNC infotainment platform. Its latest win was Volkswagen's announcement late last year that all its mid- and high-end radios would support MirrorLink.

The future of car apps

At CES I spoke with Alan Ewing, CCC's president and executive director, about MirrorLink's progress. "The hard part is a standard for distracted driving," he said. There is no standard, but CCC's gathered the existing guidelines for the United States, the European Union, and Japan, and consulted with industry experts, to develop what Ewing calls a "harmonized" set of guidelines that will work across all those geographies. I expect to hear more about MirrorLink at Mobile World Congress next month--CCC held its first developers conference at last year's event.

In just a few years' time, car apps have sprung from nothingness to being--and more are coming. It's still too early to tell how many and in what form, and many car companies still need to join the parade. What is certain is that the cars of today and the future are no longer self-contained, hermetically sealed, rolling metal boxes. Nor can they be judged anymore solely on their horsepower and design. They are part of the Internet of Things, and their ability to move comfortably within the cloud as well as on the road is what's fascinating to me about this new era of car tech.

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