In contrast to Ford's approach, which assumes consumers will bring their smart phones into the vehicle, GM's OnStar relies on a phone connection built into the vehicle.
OnStar recently announced expanded smart phone apps for many 2011 Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC models. When drivers use a secure login, the application enables remote access to information about diagnostics, remaining fuel level and range, current and recommended tire pressures and more. The driver's cell phone connects to the cell phone embedded in the vehicle.
"We're working aggressively to bring the Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC applications to market as soon as possible," said Joel Ewanick, GM's vice president of marketing. "We know that each brand's customers have different tastes, wants and needs. The apps will be very specifically tailored to offer them the services they value most, leveraging OnStar features as a compelling mutual foundation."
Additionally, any function available on a key fob also is accessible through the OnStar app. This includes remote door locking and remote start. The advantage over a traditional key fob is range -- the OnStar app works wherever there is cell service.
Monitoring the vehicle's status becomes even more important for electric vehicles, and both the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf feature apps for smart phones. Apps running on the Apple iPhone, Motorola Droid and BlackBerry Storm can show the vehicle's state of charge and estimated range.
Additionally, the Volt and Leaf can be instructed to heat or cool the cabin while the car is attached to a charger. Adjusting the temperature while the car is connected to the power grid saves battery energy and thus extends the Volt's or Leaf's range on electric power.
What's next? Aftermarket suppliers are coming out with apps that someday could become standard equipment on new vehicles.
Mini drivers can download an iPhone app called the Minimalism Analyzer. The app puts a cheeky display graphic on the Mini's center screen to coach drivers toward more efficient driving. BMW AG, Mini's parent, says following the app's suggestions can improve mileage by as much as 15 percent.
BMW also recently unveiled a prototype of its microNavigation map system. It can share trip information with smart phones when trips include nonautomotive segments, such as train travel or walking. It also remembers where the car is parked and displays the location on the smart phone's display.