There’s an app for that car

  • 21-Jun-2010 09:48 EDT

Continental’s AutoLinQ helps users connect seamlessly whether they’re in cars, at home, or walking.

Cell phone technology is rapidly making its way into vehicles, giving both product developers and auto owners a way to leverage the rapid changes in consumer electronics. OEMs and Tier 1s are developing strategies that let them run apps approved for automotive use, though developers are controlling access to approved software.

Analysts and marketers predict that apps will rapidly gain acceptance as telematics brings more connectivity to cars. Companies are already rolling out products that meld these specialized programs with vehicle electronics. Their strategies often involved many partners.

For example, Continental Automotive recently established AutoLinQ development alliances with Deutsche Telekom, Inrix, Navigon, Navteq, Pandora, and Ygomi. AutoLinQ is based on Google’s Android operating system, which lets automotive suppliers bring in features they select throughout the lifetime of the vehicle.

Suppliers throughout the supply chain say these apps will be very popular with vehicle owners. “Apps can be hyper personal, changing whenever someone takes an interest in something new,” said Leo McCloskey, Vice President of Product Management for Airbiquity.

Though AutoLinQ uses Google’s open platform, the hardware won’t run all Android apps. OEMs will be able to restrict apps to those that have HMIs (human/machine interfaces) that won’t distract drivers and won’t cause any sort of system crashes.

“You can’t just take any Android app and run it on the vehicle. They have to be certified by the OEM before they will run,” said Brian Droessler, Vice President of Strategy and Portfolio for Continental’s Infotainment and Connectivity Business Unit.

This so-called controlled openness is gaining traction as a strategy that lets OEMs maintain some level of control while they also open up vehicle platforms to more consumer technologies. If automakers embrace this approach as many observers predict, most vehicles may provide two connectivity systems.

Many observers expect cars to have embedded telematics for functions such as safety so emergency calls can be made even if the driver forgets to bring a phone or its batteries are dead when an accident occurs. These functions won’t use much bandwidth, so phone connection costs may be embedded in vehicle costs. Owners may use existing cell phone plans for more personal applications such as streaming music to the vehicle.

“I foresee more hybrid approaches, with a core of diagnostics and safety embedded in the vehicle. The applications that the consumer will pay for will be tied to the cell phone,” said Francis Dance, Business Development Manager for BMW North America.

Though drivers may be willing to pay for connectivity, there’s some question about whether they will pay for applications. Creating a revenue stream remains one of the central questions in the expected takeoffs of telematics. Some market researchers think that the revenue from vehicle-related programs will be small.

“Most apps will have to be offered for free, even in the automotive industry,” said Thilo Koslowski, Vice President of Automotive Research at Gartner Inc. He noted that the 20% of cell phone apps that are free account for 80% of the downloads, which are predicted to soar to 22 billion in 2013.

Though most app downloads will be free, there’s still a large potential market for programs that consumers will pay for. “Even if only 10% of the 22 billion apps are paid for, that 2.2 billion apps represent a very nice market,” said John Horn, National Director for T-Mobile.

Though consumers may want multiple apps, Continental doesn’t plan on making huge numbers available. Safety concerns may well limit the number of automotive app providers who are included in development projects.

“We’re not looking for hundreds or thousands of app partners. We’re looking for five or 10 that take advantage of our breadth of knowledge,” said Scott Beutler, Vice President of Continental’s North American Customer Center Interior Division.

Phone apps aren’t the only Web technology moving quickly into the vehicle. As Google’s Android gains traction in vehicles, the company’s browser capabilities are also being leveraged. Earlier in June, OnStar and Ford announced agreements with Google that allow users to send data from Google Maps directly to their navigation systems. Audi also teamed up with the search engine provider, letting users view 3D images from Google Earth in their navigation systems.

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