Smartphones: the future of in-car entertainment

Cars aren't just about driving - new tech systems give passengers a world of entertainment

Barry Collins Stewart Mitchell
21 Apr 2011

Digital dashboards have long included Bluetooth or smartphone docks, letting drivers make hands-free calls or play music stored on their phone. The next generation of in-car entertainment won’t just integrate with your smartphone: it will be your smartphone.

Dashboards that integrate with iPhone apps, in-car consoles built on Google Android, and the ability to switch on the cabin air conditioning remotely from your smartphone are all features being built into cars today or in the near future. And not only in high-end luxury vehicles but everyday runarounds such as the Ford Fiesta. The era of the connected car is dawning.

Linked in

Ford is already integrating smartphone apps into its line-up in North America (Europe, as ever, will have to wait). The company’s Sync AppLink system allows drivers to control apps on their Android, iPhone or BlackBerry smartphone using the car’s built-in voice-recognition API, or the controls mounted on the dashboard and steering column.

smartphones in cars

Gone are the days of scrabbling under the passenger seat and prising a discarded Werther’s Original off the Bruce Springsteen CD: if you want to listen to The Boss, press a button on the steering column, say “mobile apps”, “Pandora” and “play” – the Springsteen playlist stored in the Pandora music streaming service starts rattling through the speakers.

The driver’s hands never leave the wheel: the whole thing is managed via Bluetooth with the phone ensconced in the driver’s pocket. The dashboard display shows the track details, and the smartphone app is locked when the car is in motion, to help drivers resist the temptation to twiddle while they drive.

There were only three AppLink apps available at the time of publication, but Ford claims to have “hundreds of developers” waiting in the wings. Handily, those apps aren’t necessarily designed from the ground up: the existing Pandora app has been adapted to include support for both AppLink and the Mini Connected entertainment system, so users don’t have to buy twice.

Apps on the dash

Voice recognition isn’t flawless, especially in a car gunning down the motorway with the stereo playing, and there will always be some smartphone app features that can’t be handled by voice commands. That’s why certain car manufacturers are cutting out the middle man and delivering smartphone apps straight to the touchscreen console built into their dashboards.

Certain car manufacturers are cutting out the middle man and delivering smartphone apps straight to the touchscreen console

Toyota’s next-generation Entune infotainment system will display apps stored on a paired smartphone – including Bing search, OpenTable (the restaurant reservation service) and Pandora – on a touchscreen mounted between the driver and front passenger.

The advantage is that both front-seat occupants control the apps, and on a screen much larger than the average smartphone, although voice controls are more limited than Ford’s system. Unlike Ford’s AppLink, however, Toyota owners will need to download a separate Entune version of the apps to ensure the interface is consistent. The system will be offered as an option on select Toyota models later this year.

The phone takes over

While car manufacturers are busy integrating smartphone apps into their existing dashboards, some third-party manufacturers are keener on ripping out the in-car system and replacing it with the smartphone itself.

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