How new 'smarter' cars will offer internet on the road

Jonathan Weinberg
Car makers - and phone companies - envisage a future where we use voice-controlled apps to talk to our cars, and entertainment is streamed to our vehicles via mobile phones.

Classic Eighties TV show Knight Rider set the benchmark for futuristic cars with the Knight Industries Two Thousand, otherwise known as KITT.

The David Hasselhoff's 'intelligent' car might be about to become reality - one of the big trends at this year's Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona was for web-connected cars.

MWC is a testing ground for new ideas in mobile technology - and this year, apps for cars were a big buzzword.

Car makers - and phone companies - envisage a future where we use voice-controlled apps to talk to our cars, and entertainment is streamed to our vehicles via mobile phones.

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Leading the way is Ford, which has announced a partnership with music streaming service Spotify, offering millions of tracks direct to our dashboards, meaning no more settling for crackly radio stations.

Owners of Ford's forthcoming EcoSport SUV will get access to the service first, allowing them to choose tunes simply by talking to the car and asking it to play them.

Dozens of other dashboard apps are also in the works - either pairing with mobile phones via Bluetooth or using a dedicated SIM card under the bonnet.

Ford's AppLink system aims to bring an app store to car dashboard. It currently pairs with a mobile belonging the whoever is behind the wheel or a passenger.

It only has 63 apps - despite one million subscribers in America -  a number Ford is hoping to change with a drive to find developers across Europe to create voice-controlled software for it.

The Ford Developer Program, the first of its kind by an auto firm, has attracted more than 2,500 registrations worldwide in the past month showing the potential growth for this emerging industry.

Paul Mascarenas, Ford chief technical officer, said: "More than three million Ford vehicles in Europe will be equipped with Ford SYNC by 2015 and AppLink can help developers maximise the reach of their smartphone app products and services.

"The number of registrations over the last month highlights the mobile app development community understands that message and is excited about coming on board."

Jeremy Green, an telco analyst at Ovum, believes the move is a step in the right direction but says there is still a long way to go before in-car apps are a differential reason for choosing a particular car.

He explained: "The ecosystem will need further support before in-car applications become mass market. However, having Spotify on board will undoubtedly boost Ford's in-car profile.

"The other partners announced look to be interesting content add-ons, but again are unlikely to sway the purchasing decision."
Those deals include Kaliki giving access to audio news and information on the move alongside real-time location tracking app Glympse, which can constantly ping family and friends so they know where you are. Another content delivery company called Aha, which offers 30,000 different stations of music, news and audiobooks, was also announced for Europe.
Mr Mascarenas added: "SYNC AppLink opens up a whole new world of content to Ford customers that they can access on the move by voice control while keeping their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road."

Over at General Motors, the company behind names such as Chevrolet and Vauxhall, boffins are working on ways to integrate 4G connectivity within our cars for an always-on, on-the-road experience.

It hopes to bring superfast wireless to some of its models by the end of next year in America with Europe to follow. Speaking at MWC yesterday, GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky joked the car was the "original mobile device" and said: "We've only scratched the surface of what is possible when the automotive and wireless worlds converge.

"Today, in-car technology is fast becoming one of the top consumer considerations in making a vehicle purchase. We're not just trying to give our customers what they want; we're working to develop what we think they will want in the future."

He added: "Our vision is to bring the customer's digital life into the car, and bring the car into the customer's digital life."
Examples he hoped to bring to life included rear-seat streaming video, cameras that can transmit live images from the inside, outside and underneath the bonnet of the car and new location-specific services.
But Mr Girsky said the auto industry needs to change because its four-year development times don't match the pace of change in mobile. He promised a fluid system that can continuously be updated with system, software and app updates in the same way a smartphone can.
Volvo and Ericsson also have a partnership to connect cars to the cloud and other in-car innovations at MWC include the MirrorLink connected display, developed by the Car Connectivity Consortium. It aims to create a new standard across the industry to ensure safety standards are not compromised by dashboard distractions.
Another company Real VNC is working with car companies to install similar software that can mirror mobile or tablet streamed content to front and rear screens. 

Tom Blackie, Vice President Mobile at RealVNC, said: "The phone-centric connected car is becoming a reality in 2013."

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