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Summary:

Ford and GM opened up their closely guarded connected car platforms to developers at CES, which means we’ll soon see a plethora of apps appearing in our dashboards. But the automakers aren’t Google. They’ll be careful about what exactly they’ll let into the vehicle.

Connected Car Mouse
photo: Shutterstock / Mopic

New car technology has always been a big draw at CES. All of the big automakers show off their future cars with features aimed at turning our normally dull driving experience into multimedia-filled and largely automated highway cruises. Connectivity to the mobile network and the wider Internet world has always been part of that equation, but it’s always been a limited connectivity.

Automakers have been very careful about whom they let into their cars, for both safety and control reasons. So while carefully crafted partnerships with Pandora and Harman’s Aha abound, the connected car has remained largely a closed shop.

Cadillac CUE

Cadillac CUE

Take the Cadillac CUE system for instance. GM had quite literally designed the Cadillac of connected car platforms, using haptic feedback and proximity sensor technologies to create a beautiful, intuitive interface, which an equally powerful hardware stack. But when I test-drove the car last summer, all of that power and sophistication seemed like a waste. At the time, CUE supported a single third-party app: Pandora.

But that changed at this year’s CES. Both General Motors and Ford announced open development platforms for their respective connected car platforms, potentially opening them up to thousands of new apps and services. While GM’s developer portal doesn’t appear to be live yet, Ford told us that 1,258 devs have downloaded its software developer’s kit as of Thursday.

There are some key differences between the two programs. Ford is pushing its Sync AppLink program to forefront, opening up the APIs in the Sync system that allows the car to act as an alternate interface for apps that run on the smartphone. What we’re likely to see is a lot of apps we already use become “Sync-enabled,” meaning you can activate and them control them from the vehicle dash or from Sync’s Nuance-powered voice command system.

Ford also announced a bunch of new developer partners, which give you an idea of the types of apps that will come out of the program. Amazon Cloud Player and Rhapsody will stream over the car’s speakers and are voice-enabled for music controls. USA Today and Kaliki will become in-dash news readers. Glympse will share the car’s real-time location with family and friends, while BeCouply will suggest nearby dating ideas for the Romeo that forgot to make plans.

ChevySparkGM’s program is letting developers delve more deeply into the dash, building software that will run over GM’s three connected car systems: CUE, Chevrolet’s MyLink and Buick’s IntelliLink. GM also appears to be promising that development will be consistent across all three platforms. That will be quite the feat, since GM designed each platform separately – in particular CUE – by using different vendors.

GM is also creating what amounts to an automotive app store. Once an app is tested an approved it goes into catalog from which drivers can browse and download apps, using their smartphones to provide the connectivity. GM said the catalog would be available in select model-year 2014 vehicles, meaning in new cars this fall.

An Apple vs. a Google approach to development

There are a lot of similarities between these programs and the ones of Android and iOS devices, but expect the automakers to follow Apple’s approach to development rather than Google’s. In fact, my bet is they’ll be much more strict than Apple is when it comes to what apps they in.

A good part of this has to do with safety. Ford and GM won’t approve apps that could potentially distract the driver, so don’t expect to watch Netflix or Call of Duty on your new Buick’s heads up display (though there is a lot of potential for video streaming and gaming apps on future backseat or passenger-side displays). If your app emits loud jarring klaxons at random intervals, it might not make it into the catalog.

But automakers also will likely institute restrictions for the sake of the good old walled garden. It might seem like these programs would be ideal opportunities for Google and Nokia to create full-fledged in-dash navigation systems, but that treads on the automaker’s own turn-by-turn turf.

2013-Chevrolet-Spark-BringGo navigationThe automakers aren’t opposed to the idea of a “nav app” you can download or integrate into your car. Chevy plans to launch a nav app called BringGo, which lives on the smartphone but can be interfaced to the MyLink system, a cheaper alternative to OnStar navigation. Chevy, though, is charging a one-time fee of $50 for the app. No one would buy it if you could merely download Google Maps into the dash for free.

It’s also important to note that these developer programs are confined to the infotainment systems of the cars. Anything that has to do with how the car actually or drives or performs. But that may be changing soon as well.

Though it didn’t get as much attention as Ford’s Sync developer news, Ford also took its OpenXC program out of beta, allowing developers to gain access to the speedometer, sensors and higher-order functions of the vehicle. It’s more an R&D project for now, but eventually developers may be able to apps and even modular hardware that can take the temperature of the engine, access the climate control and even upload diagnostic data to your mechanic.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Mopic

  1. Darrin Langen Sunday, January 13, 2013

    QNX was also at CES, showing their Bentley concept car. It would be interesting to get your opinion on their offerings.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Sunday, January 13, 2013

      Hi Darrin,

      There were a lot of car companies at CES :) This story was focused more and developer programs then concept cars (which tend to be big on ideas that never really materialize), but RIM and QNX are also diving head first into open dev. They plan to launch their own dev program this year. Here’s a story I wrote back in October about Car 2:

      https://gigaom.com/2012/10/16/rim-invites-its-developers-to-test-drive-the-connected-car/

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