Smartphone apps: Coming to a car near you

Everyone knows the smartphone industry is driven by apps. Soon your car may also be ‘driven’ by apps. Is that a good thing? It depends.

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I admit it. I hate driving. It’s not because I’m a terrible driver (though I am), it’s because it’s such a bloody waste of time. Unless I’m listening to a book or engaged in a stimulating debate about the infield fly rule, my brain quickly turns to Jello.

I know I’m not alone. I’d venture that half of my phone conversations involve at least one person behind the wheel of a car. It’s the same motivation: How to make more efficient use of otherwise dead time.

Now there’s a new solution to driving dead time: Auto apps.

Of course, if you use your mobile phone while weaving between 16- 18-wheelers on I-95 that dead time may well become literal.  To use apps without taking your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road means using voice commands. And so far, voice-driven car apps have been pretty much limited to operating your hands-free phone, selecting songs on your iPod, or arguing with your satnav device. That’s about to change in a big way.

I Sync, therefore I am

This year, at IFA Berlin 2013, Ford announced third-party smartphone apps that will work directly with the FordSYNC AppLink software built into 2014 model EcoSport SUVs and Ford Fiestas. They include Spotify, CitySeeker, Hotels.com, AnswerWiki, Tom Tom navigation, and a handful of others.

Connect your iPhone (via wire) or Android handset (via Bluetooth) to Ford SYNC, and you will be able to peruse playlists, listen to audiobooks, find the nearest gas station, get answers to questions, have the news read to you, wrangle a hotel room, and so on, using just your voice. They’re the result of Ford’s open source AppLink API, which it is hoping will become a standard for the auto industry.

Ford held a panel discussion at the trade show, the largest consumer electronics show this side of Vegas, bringing together representatives from a half dozen app makers to wax rhapsodically about the app-driven future of cars. I also saw a demo of the product, using a mock dashboard and a microphone.

A Ford spokesperson demonstrated how to search Hotels.com to find the nearest three-star hotel and quote you a room rate. At this point, that’s where AppLink breaks down. It can’t actually make the reservation for you, even though you can certainly do that using a mobile app or Hotels.com’s Web site.

Wait til AppLink 2.0, he promised.

Wheels down 

Ford Sync isn’t much to look at. It’s like a voice-driven version of DOS. Then again, you probably don’t want an interface that’s too whizzy or distracting, or you might end up in a hospital bed instead of a hotel. It’s also unclear how well voice recognition will work in a noisy car barreling down the highway at 70 mph, or if trying to get the system to recognize your commands will ultimately prove more distracting than tapping on a screen. That is, as they say, where the rubber meets the road.

Other questions: If you thought apps collected too much info about you now, wait until they get inside your car. The amount of location data is likely to grow by an order of magnitude; the kind of data collected, the length of time time it’s retained, what the app maker does with it, and the ability to tie that data to your identity are all important questions with no clear answers.

Apps-driven cars just got a few miles closer to reality. They may prove incredibly useful and safer than trying to use a phone with the pedal to the metal. They may also prove to be yet another threat to our privacy, whose implications won’t be clear until it’s too late.

Your mileage may vary.

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he'll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to's, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

Now read this:

Once all our cars can talk to each other, what will they reveal about us?

Honk if you love privacy (or hate having your location tracked)

Why location privacy is important

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