Car makers prepare for app explosion

A vision of the in-car future has been previewed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with automakers unveiling app-download technology similar to that used by smartphones.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally delivered the keynote address on January 7, promising that the company would would offer "increased connectivity while at the same time creating minimal distraction for the driver." During the presentation, the brand's SYNC team unveiled new developments planned for 2010, including a revamped voice command system and plans to open the system to third-party app developers later in 2010. Combined with 3G mobile data services, this could mean richer location-based content for consumers, social networks on-the-go, and streaming music in the car from services such as Pandora.com or last.fm. Application downloads grew 85 percent in 2009, according to Nielsen.

"By embracing the open innovation community, we're able to let creativity guide us," said K. Venkatesh Prasad, technical leader, Ford research and advanced engineering. "We can pursue the apps that lead to the most value for our customers and, since anything approved for SYNC will have to meet our telematics standards and design rules, we can help ensure safety and usability goals are met."

Ford was not the only manufacturer touting in-car interaction. South Korean manufacturer Kia unveiled several concepts alongside its voice-controlled UVO "infotainment" system, planned to debut in cars from summer 2010. Live in-car digital television, a "Telematics" service that dials 911 in the event of airbag deployment and downloadable "widget" apps were amongst Kia's planned introductions.

General Motors demonstrated a smartphone application that allowed vehicle owners to control their car remotely. The app, available for the Droid by Motorola, Apple iPhone and Blackberry Storm, will allow Chevrolet Volt EV owners to display charge status, remotely schedule charging, remotely start the vehicle and unlock the doors using their smartphone. The application will be available when the Volt is launched later in 2010.

In-car technology has become a critical differentiator in the auto industry, with brands competing to offer richer services on-the-move in premium models. Current focus is on perfecting voice-controlled technology in order to reduce driver distraction, believed to be a factor in almost 80 percent of accidents according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

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