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Car biz opens doors to developers for in-dash apps

CES 2013: Ultraviolet & Cloud-based Content

As infotainment systems play a larger role in influencing the sale of a car, an increasing number of automakers are looking to make the screens mimic another popular device consumers can’t leave home without: the smartphone.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, General Motors and Ford Motor Co. will announce plans to open up their in-car entertainment systems to third-party developers to create apps that can be loaded onto the screens on their dashboards.

Until now, most of the systems were pre-bundled with Pandora, Stitcher, Tune In or so-called “native apps” that shipped with the car.

But as large screens find their way into even the smallest of vehicles — GM’s smallest car, the Spark, boasts an impressive 7-inch screen — the automotive biz is looking for ways to keep the technology fresh by giving customers the control of choosing which apps they want to use.

GM hopes this kind of open-source approach will lead to the development of innovative apps they may not have thought of, and enable the systems to be quickly updated by turning to the cloud or connecting to a smartphone with the software upgrade.

That “will keep your car fresh and relevant for the next five or six years after the sale,” says Steve Schwinke, director of app ecosystem and application development for General Motors. “That’s really the path we’re going down.”

GM, along with BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Volvo are members of the Genivi Alliance, founded nearly four years ago, that embraces open-source for infotainment systems. The Linux Foundation is behind the Automotive Grade Linux Workgroup aimed at advancing automotive device development, which Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan and Toyota support with Intel and Nvidia.

Both want to make sure consumers get the same kind of connectivity in their cars that they do in their homes, offices and smartphones or tablets.

The new Chevrolet Spark and Sonic now integrate Siri for iPhone users. And the next-generation of Chevy’s MyLink system will enable buyers of the 2014 Impala to customize their infotainment system.

“No matter what your pricepoint is, new car buyers want that big screen and want to take advantage of that big screen,” Schwinke says. “Everybody has a smartphone and we said, ‘Let’s take advantage of that.'”

At CES, GM will host a developers conference to “make getting those apps in the vehicles pretty painless,” by turning to HTML5 technology, for example, already used by a number of developers for smartphone apps and websites.

“We’re excited about bringing third-party developers into the automotive world and what they come up with to excite our buyers,” Schwinke says. “It’s wide open in terms of what the opportunities are.”

Most carmakers do have guidelines that steer away from distractions while driving. They don’t allow apps that require keyboards, for example, or play video or feature scrolling text.

“We are proactively driving our users to use voice recognition,” says Doug VanDagens, global director of Ford’s Connected Services Solutions group. “The assumption is you have AppLink and you’re using it in the most convenient way in your car. Otherwise you’re forced to look down.”

Development for in-car use is also considered a way to improve apps. For example, when Pandora launched, the music service didn’t offer up voice controls. Now it’s the primary way the service is accessed on the road.

“We’ve taken what Ford’s software is capable of like text to speech and voice control and presented it to developers,” VanDagens says.

In addition to the screens, GM has its Remote App, which began giving buyers the chance to start their car or honk the horn through their smartphone. Since then, it’s grown to being able to send route maps to the car, for example. Ford has its own AppLink app for mobile devices.

“I’m more excited about what people want to do, what they’re thinking of doing, or how they want to customize their car to make it their own,” Schwinke says. “Something that resonates with me might resonate with my son. That’s why we’re going to development community to make that car more appealing to purchase. That’s the fun part of all this. What do the creative minds out there think that’s cool?”

The first GM vehicles to feature the new apps from developers will be available in late 2013, GM says.

At last year’s CES, GM showed off the ability for drivers to control screens in the rear of the car and connect to the cloud to play movies via a 4G Internet connection — a function that should attract Hollywood eager to get more consumers to embrace use of UltraViolet. It also demonstrated Skype calls through the rear screens.

“Those were just ideas we were putting out there,” Schwinke says. “We’re a car company and we still have this DNA inside us. Let’s give someone else an opportunity to see which apps will take off. Let the customer decide.”

CES 2013: Ultraviolet & Cloud-based Content
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