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The Next Big Thing for Your Car Is Already in Your Pocket

Rick Newman
The Exchange

MyLink Interface in a 2014 Chevrolet Spark. (Photo: Siemond Chan)

You don’t usually get a glimpse of the automotive future in a $14,000 economy car. But if you climb into the 2014 Chevrolet Spark with your smartphone, you could become an unsuspecting digital pioneer.

The Chevy MyLink system that's standard on all but the entry-level version of the Spark does something novel: It outsources a portion of the car’s computing power to your smartphone. The offerings are limited and there are technical limitations, yet the pairing of car and phone could end up changing the experience of driving as much as the advent of car radio in the 1930s. “I envision the auto as being the ultimate mobile device,” says Thilo Koslowski of consulting firm Gartner. “The car will become something much cooler than a smartphone.”

There’s nothing new about phones that connect to the audio system in a car, via an auxiliary jack or a Bluetooth wireless hookup. That kind of connectivity lets you stream music from your phone into your car’s audio system, or place hands-free phone calls using the audio system as a speakerphone. Some new cars these days come with built-in apps for services such as Pandora (P) or Spotify, as long as your phone provides the cellular connection.

The big leap for automakers will be migrating away from a fixed set of features installed for the life of the car, to a customizable suite of apps that can be added or deleted via a phone or tablet. Luxury automakers such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Lexus now offer cellular capability embedded in the car itself, along with apps similar to what you might download onto your phone. That allows you to do things such as check the weather or search for nearby stores or restaurants on a dashboard screen, with no need for a phone (as long as you pay for a cellular account linked to the car).

Your phone as auto entertainment hub

What MyLink does differently on compacts such as the Sonic, Spark and Cruze is use your phone itself as the car’s entertainment hub. The car has basic audio functions such as AM and FM reception, but there are no built-in apps. When you sync your phone with the car, however, your phone’s apps appear on a 7-inch touch screen in the dashboard, mirroring the phone’s home screen. You can tap the touch screen as if it’s your phone, and if you have an iPhone, holding down a button on the steering wheel will summon the virtual assistant Siri, just as holding down the Home button on an iPhone would.

MyLink also qualifies as a money-saver that might appeal to buyers on a budget, rather than an expensive option on an already pricey luxury make. BringGo, for instance, is a $60 navigation app for both Android and iOS that will run on the MyLink dashboard display when your phone is synced with the system. That provides the convenience and large viewing area of a built-in nav system for less than the cost of a good portable unit. Since installed navigation systems typically cost somewhere between $750 and $2,000, you might save enough to pay for a year’s worth of gas.

Now for the limitations. At the moment, only four apps — Pandora, Sticher, BringGo and a worldwide radio app called TuneIn — are available for MyLink. The slow rollout involves protocols meant to assure that popular apps are modified for in-car use, mostly by removing visual cues or anything else that could persuade a driver to take his eyes off the road and look at the dash instead. As more app developers meet automaker standards, more apps will be available for in-car use.

The trend should gain momentum because there are several advantages in making a smartphone the car’s entertainment hub. It gives users access to the same apps in their car that they’re used to having everywhere else. It also allows them to update and customize their apps whenever they want instead of relying on built-in features that can’t be swapped out. Phone-centric cars might also appeal strongly to younger consumers, who worry automakers because they’ve shown considerably less interest in cars than their parents did.

There are hurdles. Automakers want to prevent the use of some apps in the car — such as games and other apps that require frequent input and would be too distracting — and they’re still in the process of sorting out which apps can be modified for in-car use and which can’t. Automakers also disagree about how some apps should be used. Tesla (TSLA), for instance, allows drivers to enter info into a navigation system while the car is moving, while other automakers don’t. “If we just mirror what happens on the phone, that may not be the right interface,” says Jim Buczkowski of Ford (F), whose AppLink system is similar to Chevy’s MyLink. “Figuring out the appropriate way to get those apps in the vehicle is where our job comes in. It’s about how we translate what’s on your phone, how we make it seamless.”

Differing standards

Differing standards between Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG), which make the majority of smartphone operating systems, are another complication. For optimal functionality, automakers will have to offer interfaces that are somehow compatible with both, or align themselves with either Google or Apple. There could also be disputes between Apple and various automakers, since each is intent on controlling the user experience when a smartphone is involved.

Another problem is that automakers haven’t really figured out how to simplify technology systems that seem to offer a bewildering array of menu options that are hard to access while you’re driving. And the “solution” to that complexity is often a set of voice commands you have to memorize and bark at your car, if you want to keep both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road. Ford, for instance, broke new ground with its Sync and MyFord voice-activated systems, but it also drew potent criticism for overcomplicated controls that mystified drivers. Ford revamped the technology in response to criticism.

If automakers can simplify the interface with smartphones in order to get the most out of them, your next car (or maybe the one after that) might be a very different driving experience than you're used to. In addition to providing entertainment and Internet access, a phone could be used like a key to unlock and start the car. It might gather diagnostic information that helps you track needed maintenance and troubleshoot engine problems. It might even help drivers pilot the vehicle, once automated cars begin to proliferate. One useful development speeding all this would be “superconnectivity” that assures you’ll never lose cellular service — even when out of range of your cellular provider — because of seamless integration with other providers.

Automakers, however, also have to get more comfortable with the idea that drivers, phone manufacturers and even little-known app developers will increasingly control the feel and functionality of the passenger compartment. “This is the first generation of in-vehicle technologies,” says Koslowski. “If the auto industry doesn’t figure this out soon, it will have missed an opportunity to provide products that go beyond mobility.” If that happens, your next car may be nothing more than a car. How boring.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.