Drivers Want Smarter Cars

A more connected car delivers a smarter experience

In the future, cars may be driving themselves down the road, but for the rest of the year it’s all about connected vehicles.
Automakers at the beginning of the year generated a lot of RPMs about autonomous cars. Toyota has hyped a self-driving Lexus LS outfitted with a laser and camera system that gives the vehicle a 360-degree view of the road and the ability to recognize traffic lights. Audi has been demonstrating a car with a computerized valet: the car parked itself, sans driver.
But the biggest trend is about delivering connected services to drivers. Automakers such as Ford and GM have unveiled additional smartphone-based apps for their vehicles, while retailers and 12-volt installers have been given plenty of opportunities to match those options with aftermarket products. And all indications are that consumers want the app experience behind the wheel.
A survey from IBM entitled Transforming Retail shows that car owners are increasingly interested in options such as live traffic reports and personalized services like Pandora and Yelp. According to the report, consumers are ranking such options as more important than brand loyalty and even reliability. It’s why companies like Ford are including programs like BeCouply, an app that offers nearby dating suggestions, in cars this year. Wacky or not, consumers say they want these technological gimcracks. While most shoppers may not be able to afford a new Mustang to get streaming media in the car, there has been a growing number of upgrade options available to satisfy that desire this year.
In the “we’re not dead yet” category, portable navigation devices continue to add creative features to match what in-dash systems and smartphones can offer. Magellan’s SmartGPS PND uses a Bluetooth connection to connect to an owner’s smartphone using a free app. It gives the PND a live, two-way data connection to the Internet without an additional monthly subscription fee. Magellan has included FourSquare alerts, Yelp reviews, and synchronized trip planning. Plot out a vacation on a PC at home and it will automatically be loaded into the on-dash device when you hop in the car. It’s a feature not unlike those offered in built-in systems from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, without the big sticker price.
Magellan has taken the additional step of including Wi-Fi in the SmartGPS. This enables automatic over-the-air updates whenever an owner’s car is within range of the driver’s home network. Just pull into your garage, and the SmartGPS will check for new maps and information. (In a live driving demonstration of the device, it also picked out red light cameras on my route.)
Meanwhile, Tom Tom has improved the accuracy of its live traffic reports that are already part of the company’s $59.95 per year HD Live service. The built-in cellular connection gathers data from other drivers on the road to generate warnings about accidents ahead. (It’s compatible with Tom Tom’s line of Live PNDs.)
Garmin is also touting new models that are aimed at delivering a better navigation experience. The Prestige Nuvi 3597LMTHD, for example, has beefed up “real directions,” which use instructions such as “turn right at the gas station” rather than “turn right in a quarter mile.” The Prestige model also has a nifty magnetic mount that snaps the display securely on a mounting arm. No more twisting or tugging.
Many connected features, however, are based on in-dash systems, including a growing number of head units that connect to smartphones. Inrix, the traffic and navigation company behind systems from automakers like BMW and Toyota, is introducing a new parking spot finder application called Inrix Parking. Partnering with ParkMe in North America and Parkopedia in Europe, it will deliver up-to-date information on 18,000 parking facilities in North America and 42,000 in Europe. Details on prices, empty spots, and directions to the lot are included. Inrix Parking will first appear in two Kenwood DVD entertainment car receivers, the Excelon DNN990HD ($1,700) and DNN770HD ($1,300).
While companies like Pioneer have offered smartphone connected app radios for some time, the Kenwood models announced in early 2013 indicate that more manufacturers are ready to jump into the market this year with more features. The Kenwood head units work with streaming music services such as Pandora and iHeartRadio. One novel twist: The radios have built-in Wi-Fi for playing music from portable devices or nearby networks.
Parrot recently released its Asteroid Smart touch-screen, in-dash unit that includes streaming apps, such as Spotify, as well as navigation and some limited voice recognition capabilities.
For Apple aficionados, retailers are seeing aftermarket auto options that include iPhone 5 compatible plugs. When the iPhone 5 was introduced last year with a new Lighting connector, CE companies were caught by surprise. This year, companies such as Audiovox are adding Lightning connectors to its line of entertainment systems. With these new connectors, phone controls will move to the in-dash display and owners can take advantage of hands-free features such as Siri.
Finally, smartphones continue to have an impact in other in-car tech accessories. OBD II devices for monitoring a car’s performance, diagnostics and location are increasingly feeding consumer’s smartphone obsession. Auguring new services to come, Delphi introduced its Vehicle Diagnostics dongle. The device includes Verizon cell service and plugs easily into the OBD II port on vehicles built after 1996. With a complimentary iPhone or Android app, owners can monitor a car’s status, location, speed, and even generate trip logs. It also enables some owners to remotely unlock doors and receive text alerts should a younger member of the family travel outside of a predetermined area.
While the high-tech flash in the auto business continues to be focused on autonomous vehicles and the future of riding rather than driving a car, there’s plenty of technology options for getting drivers connected now. DS

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