In-car apps, often referred to as "infotainment," have been around for a few years now. For the most part, the offerings have been low-key, with apps for streaming music, news and talk radio, and GPS applications. However, more auto manufacturers are looking at infotainment as the latest platform for differentiation. As a result, the library of available in-vehicle apps is poised to explode.

In fact, marketing intelligence company ABI Research predicts that the number of downloaded in-car apps will skyrocket from around 12 million in 2012, to about 4 billion by the end of 2018. (Read about one writer's adventure in car shopping in Buying a New Car ... er ... Computer.)

Open Source Platforms Pave the Way

Until recently, infotainment apps have been built on closed ecosystems specifically for in-vehicle use. That changed when both Ford and GM, within hours of one another, announced the launch of open-source platforms and put out calls for developers to start transforming the personal driving experience.

Ford and GM may have been first in line, but other automakers have been quick to rush toward the in-vehicle app market. Hyundai, Kia and Mercedes-Benz are rolling out apps with plans to ramp up the selection for future models.

There’s also the Connected Car Consortium (CCC), whose membership includes more than 80 percent of the world's auto manufacturers. In an attempt to established a global standard for in-vehicle connectivity, the CCC has created an open-source platform called MirrorLink, which can reproduce smartphone screens on vehicle dashboards when they’re connected to the on board infotainment system.

The Embedded vs. Hybrid App Debate

While automakers agree that infotainment is the next step in the evolution of driving, there is some dissent over the system for delivery. There are two on board models on the in-vehicle app landscape:

  • Embedded apps, which are downloaded directly into the vehicle and run by the on board computer
  • Hybrid apps, which are powered by smartphones or tablets that can be connected to the dashboard and "talk" to the on board computer
GM favors the embedded model, stating that the ability to customize apps precisely to a particular vehicle is the best route to safety - a major concern with the potential for distraction that comes with in-vehicle apps. The company believes that embedded apps will simplify the experience for the driver.

Ford, on the other hand, prefers the hybrid route, and has already deployed device-driven apps with its Sync system. The advantages of the hybrid system include the idea that car owners can use familiar devices for the driving experience, and won’t have to purchase separate versions of the apps they already use on their tablets or smartphones. To address safety concerns, Ford is placing limitations on the apps that will operate through the vehicle dashboard, and disabling some features of compatible apps that would cause distractions.

The Incredible Potential of In-Vehicle Apps

While some view the idea of transforming cars into smartphones with wheels as either frivolous or downright dangerous, the potential for enhancing the way we drive can’t be ignored. In-vehicle apps can add to the driving experience in many ways, from more customized entertainment to increased efficiency and performance.

Music, news, sports and talk show options can be expanded beyond the standard radio dial, with other entertainment choices like audio books and archived broadcasts added to the mix. Drivers can receive real-time weather, traffic information and safety alerts that are relevant to their current locations. Real-time, GPS powered apps can also accommodate more personalized and advanced functions, such as the GM "meet me in the middle" app, which will locate a restaurant or café that’s halfway between two GM drivers for a convenient meet-up location.

Integrated vehicle apps will also be able to help drivers employ better vehicle maintenance, and extend the lives of their cars. Diagnostic apps can track vehicle systems and help drivers improve fuel efficiency, monitor fluid levels and tire air pressure, and catch mechanical issues in the early stages before they become expensive problems.

Why Cars Need Apps

You might think that adding apps to your car means playing "Angry Birds" at a traffic light. It's actually a lot more interesting than that. Vehicles themselves are ideally suited to benefit from apps in functional ways. Dashboards and consoles have far more real estate than mobile device screens, allowing for multiple displays and more physical controls. Voice-operated technology, with its recent advances in sophistication, can improve car-centric app functionality while preserving safety. And unlike smartphones and tablets, your vehicle’s battery won’t die when you’re in the middle of something.

It won't be long before our vehicles may be able to do just about everything. And once they're driving themselves, you will be able to kick back and enjoy a movie on the way to work.