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Automakers put smartphones to work in your car
There's a new information display going into many cars, and it fits in the palm of your hand.
Automakers and gadget purveyors are increasingly turning to applications for Apple's iPhone and other smartphones as a way to bring more high-tech electronics into cars.
The apps are varied. Chrysler is using smartphones to replace a car's bulky paper owner's manual. Audi is about to let drivers use their smartphones to check out their car's fuel mileage and other performance data — and be able to upload it to measure results against data from other Audi owners.
"Apple iPhone users are used to the kind of 'wow' applications that the smartphone offers," says David Tait, Audi of America's chief of aftermarket parts. "We're very pleased to give them another highly useful tool."
Audi was giving demonstrations here last week at the Specialty Equipment Market Association Show, the big annual trade show of aftermarket parts and automotive technology.
With some of the latest apps, smartphones are becoming an extension of the car itself. Besides offering another platform for providing information to drivers, smartphones have key advantages over built-in gadgets. Their portability allows motorists to keep their auto data close at hand even when they are away from their cars. And unlike electronics in the car, Web-based applications are easier to keep up to date.
Some automakers already are deep into using them. GM's OnStar in-car communications service, for instance, unveiled a feature over the summer that lets subscribers remotely start or lock their cars from their smartphones and even remotely blink the headlights or honk the horn to find a car in a crowded lot.
Audi's iPhone CarMonitor app, still under development, will let drivers keep tabs on key performance data by plugging an iPhone into the car's OBD-II port in the dashboard, the plug-in that mechanics use to communicate with the car's engine computer.
Among the data it can collect are miles per gallon over the course of a trip, emissions and engine revolutions. Then, with the data collected in the smartphone, users will be able to link to Audi to find comparable data from other drivers.
Drivers will be able to use the data comparison, for example, to see which routes are the most efficient, says Jaime Camhi, an engineer for Audi parent Volkswagen of America.
Chrysler, by contrast, is using smartphones as way to offer drivers more convenience.
The Detroit automaker is moving the owner's manual information on the new Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram pickups to smartphones.
Owners can use the free app to look up features in their cars, including video demonstrations about how the features are used.
"It's an important marketing tool for the brand," says Pietro Gorlier, CEO of Chrysler Group's Mopar parts division. Going to smartphones is the next digital step after having already made the information available on CDs that are kept in cars' glove boxes. He notes that owners are so eager to get rid of paper owner's manuals, which today run hundreds of pages, that fewer than 1% have opted for paper when a CD alternative is available.
Among innovative apps being developed by aftermarket firms:
• Webcams. South Korea's Daewoo showed off at SEMA its C-4000 unit that allows drivers to transmit Web camera images from their cars to their phones. They can watch in real time as they or someone else drives their car. Daewoo's Gwang Ho Lee says the unit sells for about $300 in South Korea but hasn't come to the U.S. yet.
• Radar detection. Cobra Electronics, a Chicago maker of radar detectors, launched a system last month that uses a driver's iPhone as the detector display. Besides telling a motorist when it picks up signals from police speed radar guns, it also warns of red-light cameras by using the iPhone's GPS capability.