Smart cars could break into mainstream

| Saturday, March 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Traditionally, consumers have largely selected cars on the basis of size, color, power and price. But increasingly two new factors are influencing their choice: The kind of wireless connection it has and the kinds of mobile applications it runs.

Noting the wide popularity of smartphones and the apps that run on them, carmakers are moving to make their vehicles more connected and smarter.

Some drivers already are able to access a few of the apps they enjoy on their smartphones, such as Pandora or Yelp. Soon, automakers plan to tap cars' wireless connections, sensors and built-in computers to allow drivers to connect to an even wider variety of apps and to offer drivers and their passengers information such as precise, real-time traffic and weather alerts, along with improved safety features.

“I call the car the ultimate mobile device,” said Thilo Koslowski, vice president of the automotive practice at Gartner, a technology research firm. “We're just at the beginning of seeing how that device platform will become important and significant in its own right.”

This year, about half of all cars sold in the United States will include support for apps, either running them directly on their entertainment consoles or by allowing consumers to use those consoles to interact with apps on their smartphones, according to Juniper Research. By 2017, Juniper, a wireless industry research firm, believes that nearly all cars sold will be “app connected” in one of these two ways.

Smartphone-toting consumers already are interacting with apps in their cars, using them to get directions, listen to music or send text messages. Carmakers and industry analysts increasingly assume that these consumers want to be able to more easily interact with those apps or similar ones while driving. And there are growing safety concerns about distracted drivers focusing on their relatively tiny smartphone screens instead of on the road ahead.

“Car companies are realizing that people are extremely wedded to their smartphones. They don't want to put them down,” said Tom Mutchler, senior automotive engineer at Consumer Reports. “If a car company can provide the information you want on your dashboard screen, they're going to make buyers happy.”

Consumers and car reviewers are judging cars in part on their entertainment console systems and app options. For example, Ford's ratings from J.D. Power and Consumer Reports fell in recent years thanks to numerous problems with its Sync system, which offers navigation, entertainment and, in some case, access to apps.

In a statement, Ford said it has worked to address the problems through software updates, and despite them, about 74 percent of new Ford owners say they would recommend the Sync system to friends.

Sync is “helping us attract new customers and sell cars and trucks,” the company said in the statement.

Mark Hull, a product manager at LinkedIn, said the technology built into the entertainment console of his new Lexus RX 450h was a key consideration in his decision to purchase the vehicle. The sport utility vehicle allows access to smartphone apps such as Pandora and Facebook; offers real-time sports, weather and traffic information; and includes a built-in navigation system.

“I looked at other cars, but I've always liked Lexus' technology better than other brands,” said Hull, a San Jose, Calif., resident.

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