If you’ve shopped a new a car in the last few years, chances are you’ve been presented with a lot more options beyond leather seats and fancy speakers. Cars are getting connected, giving drivers the ability to bring apps and internet services once confined to smartphones and PCs into their dashboards.
Given the amount of time we spend behind the wheel, linking our cars to the cloud and the apps we use for information and entertainment makes a lot of sense. But keep in mind that the automotive industry is much more conservative and plodding than the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley. Features and services will come much more slowly to the dashboard than they will to your iPad.
The automakers do have reason to be cautious. We’re often engaging with our infotainment systems at highway speeds. An app that proves to be too cumbersome to use or too distracting (don’t expect to see YouTube on your heads-up display any time soon) could prove fatal. Still, in many new cars you can now turn on Pandora or many other streaming audio services with a touch of the screen or even a voice command. That’s nothing to scoff at.
If you’re thinking of making a connected car purchase, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Car connectivity can mean one of two things. Either your automaker has embedded a 3G or 4G radio into the vehicle or it provides the means for you to connect the dash to the internet through your smartphone. Embedded connectivity can often mean a better signal and faster connection through the car’s externally mounted antenna, it can come with some added telematics features (for instance, letting you see your fuel level from a remote app) and it can turn your vehicle into a Wi-Fi hotspot. But it also requires getting a separate – and often expensive – mobile subscription for your car. With bring-your-own-connectivity you’re basically using the same connection and mobile plan attached to your smartphone.
- The number of apps available in cars are still tiny in number. If you thought the smartphone market was fragmented, well every automaker has a different operating system and app requirements, making it a nightmare for developers. While a few companies like Pandora (which aims to become the new FM radio of our cars) will go through the effort of optimizing their apps for 20 different infotainment platforms, most will not. Also, the automakers may block certain types of apps for competitive reasons. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to use Google Maps, Waze or Here for turn-by-turn directions in your car? Well, that’s not wonderful for automakers trying to protect the profits from their embedded navigation systems.
- The connected car you get when your drive off the lot is probably the one you’ll be stuck with for a long time. We trade in our smartphones for newer models every year or two, but typically we own our cars a lot longer. While automakers will be able to offer some enhancements through software upgrades, the hardware in your car is going to become outdated before you know it.
If you’re a heavy user of Google or Apple services and want to use them in your vehicle, then it might be worthwhile putting off your new car purchase a bit longer. This year, the first cars supporting Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto will hit the market. Don’t expect either platform to recreate the iOS or Android experience on your dashboard. They’re not true infotainment operating systems. Instead, they project a scaled-down and car-optimized version of the phone’s user interface into the dashboard display, letting you use Google and Apple’s mapping, media and communication services without fiddling with your handset.
I don’t think any reasonable person would make a car purchase today solely for the type of apps it supports, but I suspect it will become an increasingly important consideration as car connectivity gets more sophisticated. After all, we spend a lot of time in traffic in our daily commutes. That’s a lot of time in which we want we to be both informed and entertained.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Kevin Fitchard who is a journalist covering the mobile industry and wireless technology. He most recently wrote for Gigaom.