Merging smartphone, autos is a slow process
Despite the sluggish pace, integration is proceeding
General Motors took about a year to scout offerings and develop, test and integrate BringGo, an application that will display maps on the Chevy MyLink infotainment system's touch screen.
That's lightning fast in the automotive realm -- and glacial by app developer standards.
The app, from Korea's Engis Technologies Inc., lets users download maps on their smartphones to use turn-by-turn directions while driving. It will be available this fall on the 2013 Chevrolet Sonic and Spark for a $50 fee to consumers.
The process illustrates the rigor that automakers apply to developing apps to imbed into their infotainment systems -- and how divergent that process is from the Silicon Valley mentality: Throw it on the iTunes or Android and let it rip. Any bugs can be worked out later.
Those diverging approaches explain why apps are trickling into the car, while a typical smartphone user might have dozens or even hundreds of them crammed onto his or her phone.
Despite the slow pace, GM's quest for an inexpensive navigation app still shows how smartphones are slowly but surely becoming integrated into the auto.
Cautious and slow
Ford Motor Co., the pioneer in onboard apps, offers about a dozen on its MyFordTouch system. Chevy's MyLink for the Spark and Sonic will have three when the BringGo app launches. Toyota's Entune system has five.
Concern over driver distraction isn't the only reason for the abundance of caution. Automakers also are worried about quality. They don't want to be tainted by problems with an app developed by a software startup, says Phil Magney, senior director of infotainment at research company IHS Automotive.
"If the user has a negative experience with an app, it's the automotive brand that's going to take the hit," Magney says.
Toyota is "heavily involved in the process" of co-developing apps that are tailored for EnTune, says Jon Bucci, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.'s vice president of advanced technology. For example, Movietickets.com, one of the five apps offered on Entune, allows users to look up movie schedules, but they can't purchase tickets while the car is moving.
Bucci says a team of Toyota engineers works with developers on every aspect of the app, from screen layout and font size to the depth of the menu. Eventually, Bucci believes a system will emerge where automakers will have to do less heavy lifting.
"Perhaps we get better at enabling what's on the customer's device to work in the vehicle safely, rather than having a heavy hand in actually designing" the apps, Bucci says.
For the Chevy map app, GM and Engis had to work through "crazy nuances" across regions, says Sara LeBlanc, GM's program manager for global infotainment systems. Challenges included spotty map availability in Australia and the unorthodox way Koreans enter their addresses.
Despite the plodding pace, most automakers are working to offer more in-car apps to satiate consumer demand. App developers see a fresh revenue stream and are tantalized by the exposure that would come from the inclusion and implied endorsement of a big car company.
Pandora is the most widely used app in vehicle infotainment systems. The Internet radio system is used by 19 automakers across some 50 models, says Tom Conrad, Pandora's chief technology officer.
Pandora's ubiquity partly is because listening to music is a familiar task for drivers, so few modifications are required for the mobile version. Even so, implementation is challenging.
Most of Pandora's automotive partners use the app developer's own protocol, called Pandora Link, to send commands back and forth from the smartphone to the infotainment system. But other automakers, such as Ford and BMW, use proprietary systems that require Pandora to embed the automaker's software code into the Pandora application.
The difference is transparent for the consumer but dictates how much extra work the app developer or the automaker has to do.
"Our selfish perspective as an application publisher is that Pandora Link delivers the best possible user experience and is technically the most straightforward," Conrad says. "Everything is reversed if you're the OEM," some of which want every app developer to tailor their offerings to the automaker's system.
'Scratching the surface'
Such customization is feasible for Pandora, a publicly traded company with more than 500 employees. But the vast majority of app developers are tiny companies "that don't have the resources to approach all of these OEMs," says Alfred Tom, a researcher in GM's Palo Alto office who scouts new apps.
Despite the benefits of hooking on with an automaker, Tom says the cumbersome process keeps many app developers away.
"If the right platform were put in place that gave developers a clear path to monetization, you'll have thousands of apps," Tom says. Music and navigation, he says, are "just scratching the surface of apps that are valuable to you as you're driving."
You can reach Mike Colias at firstname.lastname@example.org.