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Summary:

The iPad could change the way vehicle networks operate and how consumers interact with organizations that offer alternatives to personal vehicle ownership. But a few hurdles stand between the device and a meaningful impact on vehicles’ software, entertainment, information and IT systems.

Screen grab of Real Racing HD demo on the iPad (courtesy Apple.com)The iPad represents many things: a potentially lucrative opportunity for developersApple’s next gold rush and catnip for 300,000 Apple fanboys, to start. According to Luke Schneider, chief technology officer for Zipcar, the device also has implications for fleet management and car sharing, affecting how vehicle networks operate and how consumers interact with organizations that offer alternatives to personal vehicle ownership — from transit agencies to nonprofit car- and bike-sharing networks to a for-profit company like Zipcar with its 6,000 vehicles and 350,000 members.

Hooked up to communications networks and often used by eco-minded and urban consumers, car-sharing networks may offer a prime testing ground for early generations of plug-in vehicles (GigaOM Pro, subscription required) — as well as for the apps and services that may help to pave their way into the mainstream. Already, many car-sharing networks have hybrids in their fleets (it makes sense, given that the organizations running the networks generally pay for fuel).

According to Schneider, the bulk of Zipcar’s members still make reservations and manage their accounts using a personal computer. However, the number of users connecting with Zipcar (the world’s largest car-sharing network) via smartphones is “growing at an incredibly rapid rate, steadily increasing every month,” said Schneider. Up to a third of Zipcar users now own an iPhone he said, and a little less than two thirds own a smartphone. He added, “As folks increase the mobility of their lifestyles, we want to be there,” and as users adopt new mobile devices including the iPad, “we need to be there to keep those numbers growing.”

Beyond the iPad, Beyond the Car

Zipcar has been “watching the tablet computing segment for some time,” said Schneider. But Apple’s entry has made the company take notice. He described two possible use cases that stand out for a tablet with rich media and high processing capabilities in the fleet management and car-sharing environment. While declining to provide more specifics, he said fleet managers could use the iPad to gain a “more powerful tool to ensure all vehicles are in the condition we want them to be in,” and to let drivers know “when they’ve done something well.”

Customers who rent a Zipcar for a few hours or a weekend, on the other hand, could turn to the iPad for help getting oriented in an unfamiliar place, finding relevant attractions and planning multimodal transit routes that incorporate cars, buses, trains, bike sharing or other transportation options (see: Mobility on Demand Takes Aim at Transport Networks’ “Last Mile,” GigaOM Pro).

For Zipcar, Schneider said a key question will be how to balance different services and media for a tablet interface, or as he put it, “How much of the web app to port down, how much of the phone app to port up.” Schneider said it would be “premature” to equip cars in the Zipcar fleet at this point with the tablet, but the company is looking at how to serve customers who own the tablet.

That’s similar to the approach that Ford Motor is taking. With its onboard communication system — Ford Sync, developed by Microsoft — the automaker aims to accommodate the slew of gear and gadgets that consumers might adopt over the eight years or more that they hang onto a car, without investing in hardware that can quickly become obsolete. (Nancy Gioia, the head of Ford’s sustainable mobility technologies and hybrid vehicle programs, has told us the automaker learned this lesson the hard way, after jumping on the mobile phone installation bandwagon in the 1970s and ’80s.)

The Cool Factor

The simple buzz factor of the iPad could be enough to get the attention of some automakers hoping to shake stodgy reputations. As Ford’s Doug VanDagens, who leads the automaker’s connected services group told us, Ford had a simple objective in opening up the Sync API to some third-party developers earlier this year: to “make Ford cars really cool” and boost vehicle sales.

Already, Hyundai has tried to bask in some of the iPad’s glow. The South Korean automaker announced plans last week to include an iPad with the purchase of its upcoming Equus luxury sedan. Actual utility for drivers, however, is limited to a digital owner’s manual and a tool for booking maintenance appointments via the iPad’s Wi-Fi connection.

Hurdles to Larger Impact on Greener Transit

In the transportation sector at large, the iPad may not leave as much of a mark as the smartphones and app stores that are now helping to usher in a world of digital tools meant to help us get around with less fuel and fewer emissions. When it comes to the market for MPG-boosting apps and services, adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles, the iPad seems an unlikely candidate to provide much of a jump start.

Despite some excitement this week about the potential for in-dash installations of the iPad, at least a handful of hurdles stand between the device and a meaningful impact on vehicles’ software, entertainment, information and IT systems (exception: DIYers like these guys in Santa Clarita, Calif., whose video of an iPad installed in a Toyota Tacoma truck has drawn more than 86,000 views on YouTube this week). Here’s four of those hurdles:

Distraction: The iPad is designed to provide an immersive, engaging experience — exactly what you don’t want the driver in the lane next to you (or your newly licensed kid) to have tempting their gaze from the road. For apps and devices meant for use when you’re on the road, convenience and hands-free controls take priority over the “finger-friendly interface” that makes more sense for stationary settings.

As Schneider put it, “Better media inside cars can always lead to safety issues.” This still leaves room for non-distracting apps on the road, which can use innovative methods to minimize the amount of attention required to operate them. As VanDagens put it to us, the 2 million Ford vehicles equipped with Sync can gain “connectivity to the cloud through phones” while letting drivers interact with apps using buttons on the steering wheel, for example, and voice commands.

No Multitasking: Want to listen to Pandora and get real-time feedback on your driving behavior or fuel efficiency at the same time? It’s easy to take multitasking for granted in personal vehicles, but the iPad will use only one app at a time.

Displays in the Queue: Much of the upcoming generation of plug-in and hybrid vehicles will come equipped with a fairly large display screen in the center stack, and onboard communication systems can provide access to smartphone apps. So while aftermarket retrofits like the one in Santa Clarita may appeal in some niche markets for people who crave a big screen but have either a lower-end or older vehicle, the generally high-earning crowd of early adopters buying the first iPads and alt-fuel vehicles can get a built-in screen with much less hassle.

Embedded vs. Mobile: One of the biggest selling points for the iPad is the physical design, and how it opens a world of comfortable surfing in more leisurely settings. As Slate’s Michael Agger quipped, “The iPad world is like an opium den, where one is always reclining, the better to enjoy its strange, new, vivid wonders.”

But EV-centric apps and services (for checking battery charge levels, for example — a function of the apps unveiled for plug-in vehicles from Nissan and General Motors) won’t necessarily be enhanced by the iPad’s lounging potential, larger size or rich media capabilities (the point is to have basic access on the go). Many other core functions, such as battery notification systems, and charging station locators will likely remain embedded in electric vehicles (GigaOM Pro) — no matter how sophisticated and slick mobile devices get. So similar to the way Zipcar is still negotiating how to balance features and services for personal computers, mobile phones and now tablets, it’s unclear at this point that the iPad or other tablets will offer the right balance for EV-centric apps.

By Josie Garthwaite

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