Thanks to legions of flatscreen televisions, games consoles, smartphones, tablets, non-stop Wi-fi access and a computer in every room, the big technology companies have already colonised our homes. Now they're coming for the back of our cars. And while many of us are familiar with the idea of connecting our phones via Bluetooth or plugging in our sat nav, the latest generation of in-car technology is much more concerned with keeping your passengers happy, and might just consign the game of I spy to motoring history.
"In the past, the car industry developed bespoke entertainment systems at very high cost. But with more and more smartphones and tablets on the market, we've realised those days are over," says Christof Kellerwessel, Ford's engineer for electronic and electrical systems. "People invest time and money in their personal technology, whether it's updating their music libraries or customising their phones to their liking, so we need to make those devices meaningful and practical in our cars." So whether it's in-car internet access or addictive gaming apps for back-seat drivers, the car and entertainment industries have been busy thinking up new ways to keep you and your passengers occupied.
The internet on four wheels
Until now it has been the preserve of chauffeur-driven executives, but the luxury of in-car internet access will soon be available in city cars and hatchbacks thanks to a new Microsoft-developed system from Ford.
Premium car companies such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes have offered some form of rolling internet access on some top-spec models (such as the Audi A7 Sportback and the A8 luxury saloon) for several years, but Ford's new Sync system will be the first to be offered across a company's whole range of vehicles, including the Ford Focus (right), when it is launched early next year.
As well as boasting "hands on the wheel, eyes on the road" voice recognition and a host of driving aids you'd normally find only in a luxury car (including active parking, adaptive cruise control, emergency response and a blind-spot alert), the Sync "infotainment" system will allow your car to work as a rolling hotspot in three ways, explains Christof Kellerwessel, who has overseen the system's introduction in Europe after it launched in America: "First you can use your car as a rolling hotspot at no charge, so if you are close to a public Wi-fi area, say a Starbucks or your local library, you can receive the signal and distribute it to up to five devices in your car. Or if you have a 3G smartphone you can connect it to Sync via Bluetooth and use your existing data plan at no extra cost. You can also use a USB modem to turn your car into a rolling hotspot for your whole family."
3 Mobile is already offering MiFi broadband for your car from £15.99 per month (www.three.co.uk). It's a combination of a 3G dongle and a Wi-fi router.
Scores of young children transfixed on the latest episode of Peppa Pig or Bob the Builder on their back-seat DVD players on long drives have become a familiar sight in recent years, but a new system from Pioneer has now gone one better. The system is the first aftermarket, in-vehicle system to bring music, video and maps from your iPhone to a touchscreen display on your dashboard. It will set you back £399.95 (www.pioneer.co. uk) but should keep your passengers quiet (provide some headphones) on even the longest, dullest journeys.
The SlingPlayer app (from £17.99) will broadcast any channel that you receive on your home television to your smartphone or tablet in your car. You'll need a Slingbox (available from £150) to collect signal from your home television and a 3G connection. It is this sort of entertainment technology and data-streaming, such as Spotify and the BBC's iPlayer, that some in the wider industry are very excited about. "Most people already have smartphones and sat navs but it's this sort of 'infotainment', that you can swap from car to car in the future, which really has great potential to excite car buyers," says Matt Prior, the road test editor at Autocar magazine.
Gaming on the go
Savvy drivers have been searching for the cheapest prices at the pumps and checking for delays on the motorway for years with their smartphones, but the driving experience is about to get a lot more interactive. Apps such as Backseat Driver from Toyota are promising to banish the scream of "Are we nearly there yet?" for ever. The app, which is free to download from the iTunes Store, lets your children take control of the car in a virtual drive that mirrors your real journey. Tucked away safely in the back, they'll be able to chase the "Papa Car" – the real driver – in their own virtual vehicle. Toyota has also dreamt up "Window to the World", an interactive screen which, when placed over the window, allows back-seat passengers to draw objects that will then integrate with the outside world, estimate distance to outside objects, zoom in and translate written language on signs (www.toyota.com).
Or perhaps they (and you) would rather experience the thrill of driving an Aston Martin? The company has launched a racing app (iPhone, £3.49) for drivers. It lets you imagine you are behind the wheel of a V8 Vantage by overlaying a video of the road ahead with a speedometer in the style of Aston's dials on to your iPhone's screen. Just mount to dashboard and put your foot down.
Keep it legal
Under UK law it is illegal to use a "hand-held device for interactive communication" while driving. The law also prohibits the accessing of the internet via a smartphone and sending and receiving text messages while driving. If you have a DVD screen or tablet in the car, it must be out of direct view of the driver. Drivers should pull over and operate technological devices while stationary.
Apps at the ready
Of more practical use for the driver is Toyota's Entune system, which allows smartphone owners to control apps through a dashboard display and even create a social network for their car that will let you be "friends" with your car, sending you a message when, for example, it needs a service. What your real mates will make of befriending your car is another matter.
Apps less likely to result in ribbing from your nearest and dearest include Minder Plus (iPhone; £1.99), which monitors your mileage and informs you when a service is due and TrafficEye (BlackBerry, Android, iPhone; free), which feeds pictures from more than 16,000 traffic cameras.
BMW and Volvo have also launched free apps to lock and unlock your car with your mobile, remind you where it is parked or even start up its heated seats before you get in on a cold winter's morning. Both apps use a SIM card and GPS base unit in the car so can also be used for breakdown recovery and to alert the emergency services in an event of an accident.
Also on the key front, Ford is rolling out MyKey. Essentially an electronic tag for your car which allows worried parents to limit its speed before allowing their teenagers to get behind the wheel.
You may have had a DAB radio in your kitchen for years but car manufacturers are finally waking up to the demand and the market for in-car digital radio – sales of cars with DAB radio capability are set to rise by more than 30 per cent in the next 10 years, according to one survey. Internet radio is already available as an "optional extra" on many new cars but from next year Vauxhall and Ford will lead the way by offering it as standard across their fleets.
David Wilkins, The Independent Magazine's motoring columnist, suggests an adapter to listen to DAB through your car's sound system. His pick is the Pure Highway (www.pure. com; £79.99), which attaches to the windscreen like a sat nav and then rebroadcasts on FM so you can tune into it using the normal car radio. If you prefer to cruise through your iTunes, it's never been easier thanks to the exponential rise of integrated MP3/CD car stereos. In the US, more than 90 per cent of new cars sold have an option for iPod connectivity. And when it comes to in-car add-ons, where America leads, we follow.