Lauren Goode

Recent Posts by Lauren Goode

More Apps Coming to Cars, but They’re Still Miles From Perfection

One thing is certain at today’s New York International Auto Show: Auto makers are getting more app-happy.

But auto apps are still far from high-tech perfection, and concerns about driver distraction still play a big part in how these apps work in cars.

BMW, for one, showed how location-notification app Glympse will soon work with BMWs and Mini Coopers, provided that the car has a $250 connective tether (an opt-in feature when you buy the car). Glympse, a Seattle-based app that launched in 2009, lets you pre-set a message about your whereabouts and put it on a timer.

Hop into your BMW, plug your smartphone into the connective wire and fire up Glympse. You can then tell the app that in a few minutes you want it to automatically send information on your exact location to your co-worker, or spouse or whoever it is you’re heading out to meet. Glympse has also partnered with Mercedes-Benz and Ford for this feature.

Cadillac’s just-unveiled CTS Sedan — General Motors’ luxury competitor to BMW and Mercedes-Benz — includes the most recent version of Cue, the company’s in-car communication and app system. It looks a little bit like an iPad installed in the dashboard. The updated Cue includes shortcuts for drivers, such as the ability to enter, manually or with voice, a full address to the built-in nav system instead of painstakingly entering city name, street name and so on.

And Ford today launched a competition for app developers to create a new fuel-efficiency app, citing an increasing focus on fuel economy. This comes just a few months after the auto maker announced it was opening up its in-car platforms to developers, as my colleague Liz Gannes reported. (General Motors has done the same.) Ford has also participated in a hackathon with Facebook, which led to the creation of a concept app that would prompt a “check in” for Ford vehicle owners once they arrive at a destination.

One reason for the increasing appearance of apps in vehicles is a shift in consumer mindset that has forced car makers to rethink their strategies.

Since the recession, more consumers are looking for cars with “luxury” features at less exorbitant prices. As Ford pointed out during a keynote event today, a recent Luxury Institute survey found 60 percent of respondents expect a luxury vehicle to cost less than $60,000 — much less than the former $100,000 price tag standard on fancy cars.

Adding mobile app integration is a relatively inexpensive way for auto makers to punch up the vehicles and offer more to discerning buyers.

Plus, the new demographics of car buyers, according to Jim Farley, executive vice president of global marketing at Ford, include more women, Hispanics — and millennials. “Millennials are entitled … with incredibly high expectations,” he said.

And millennials, as we well know, love their apps.

Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Brendon Kraham, manager of global mobile solutions at Google, identified a “disconnect” in the current car experience. “If I do a search on Google Maps on my desktop right now, I still have to duplicate that when I get in the car,” he said. (Naturally, he took the time to explain how Google Now, the company’s smart personal assistant application for Android phones, could provide a more seamless experience in and out of cars — but demurred when asked about self-driving cars or using Google Glass on the road.)

Facebook’s head of automotive and vertical marketing Doug Frisbie, who like Kraham spoke during the Ford keynote event, agreed. “Auto makers are acting like cellphone makers did in the early days: They’re all trying to make their own proprietary system. But consumers want something that works across all platforms.”

And there’s still the issue of driver distraction and whether all of the smartphones, touchscreens, automated voices, binging and buzzing while we’re driving actually amounts to a good thing. Some auto makers are proceeding with caution when it comes to this area.

Despite the many apps Ford’s SYNC system offers, for example, drivers still can’t create new status updates for social networks while driving. And while some car makers are loathe to give up control and precious dashboard space to third-party apps, BMW has allowed parts of Glympse’s interface — minus the mapping feature — to appear on the dashboard screen to mitigate driver distraction.

“Our philosophy is that mobile devices are just a part of our lives — and that’s going to happen,” Ford’s Farley said, when asked about driver distraction. “With new tech like voice recognition and a five-position switch on the steering wheel, well, we hope consumers will make the right decisions when it comes to controlling the vehicle.”

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus