Connected cars apps are gaining some momentum in the app development space. Modern vehicles are enabled with infotainment systems that not only sync with the driver’s smartphone for hands-free calls but also utilize the apps on the smartphone if it’s compatible with the human device interface (HDI), controlled via steering wheel buttons and voice activation.

As a result, a lot of drivers can take advantage of the following:

  • Audiobooks
  • Business apps
  • Car safety
  • Hotel/restaurant booking
  • Messaging
  • Music
  • Navigation
  • Traffic information
  • Vehicle diagnostics

However, the problem today is that only a few smartphone apps that can add any real value to the driving experience actually work with in-car infotainment systems. One of the main barriers developers have to deal with is the proliferation of incompatible platforms.

As the market grows, things are slowly changing for app developers, but they still have to comply with strict guidelines which are more rigorous in connected app space. At the moment, car manufacturers are working with developers to adapt native smartphone apps to be “drivable” and work with, for example, Ford’s AppLink.

Further, manufacturers are pushing developers to focus on ensuring core experiences so that the driver’s focus remains on the road while still being able to interact with an app.

At the moment, the connected car app market is immature. Although there are billions of smartphones, the number of connected cars is still small. As a result, there’s plenty of room for first-movers to take advantage.

However, the market is fragmented with loads of different platforms as well as the manufacturers’ own proprietary infotainment systems. But there are positive signs that manufacturers are opening up to allow cross-platform systems to accommodate the following platforms:

  • Android Auto
  • Apple CarPlay
  • Baidu CarLife (China)
  • MirrorLink (Car Connectivity Consortium)
  • SmartDeviceLink (open source)

At the moment, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay restrict third-party apps to just messaging and audio. But MirrorLink is more open and this makes it more attractive for developers who want to build apps for navigation, travel, and eating.

Navigation apps are the most popular apps utilized by users, so it doesn’t make sense for other development platforms to continue to be restricted. But neither Apple or Android allow third-party navigation on their system and I really don’t expect Apple to ever open it up.

So when developing in-car apps, there are three basic but important rules that need to be followed:

  • The app shouldn’t distract drivers
  • The app has to be practical and useful
  • The app has to be safe and easy to use while driving

Android Auto

At the moment, there are approximately 50 Android Auto apps according to Play Store. Although these may not be necessarily available in all cars, it’s supported by about 38 auto brands. Right now they’re all messaging and audio apps.

Further, you’ll need a smartphone with Android 5.0 Lollipop or newer to take advantage of Android Auto. The following phones equipped with Marshmallow and Android Auto compatibility are as follows:

  • LG G5
  • Nexus 6P
  • Samsung Galaxy S7
  • S7 Edge

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Apple CarPlay

Apple CarPlay is supported by about 40 auto brands and is expected to be included in over 100 vehicles  by the end of 2017. Further, about 14 third-party apps are currently listed.

The reason for slow development is directly associated with the time it takes to develop a car. It’s much longer than the development cycle for a tech product. So if the car and app development start at the same time, by the time the car is purchased, the infotainment system will be significantly outdated. Further, the lifecycle of a car is much longer than an iPhone, so this also needs to be considered during the development phase.

MirrorLink

There are currently 12 MirrorLink apps available and these include navigation, travel, and audio apps. Further, MirrorLink is used by approximately 55 own-brand apps like VW apps.

The specifications are controlled by the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC) who also certify the apps and cars. Members of the CCC include 17 major auto brands and nine handset manufacturers like BlackBerry and Microsoft. But at the moment, they only work with Android phones.

As the CCC isn’t prescriptive in nature, it creates a fair environment for large and small developers to work in. The ecosystem is completely open and there aren’t any limits to the number of apps allowed in any specific category. As a result, it’s the perfect ecosystem for developers to thrive.

But regardless of the platform, not all developers should move into the car app market. It’s not going to be an infinite space like the smartphone app market.

If you choose to enter the vehicle app space, it’s important to note that the use case is what matters. Before you arrive at a decision to make an app available in a car, think about the use case. The design should be focused on the use case first, integration second and distribution third. 

Check out some of our custom built connected car app solutions in Portfolio.

Andrew Zola is a freelance writer, designer, and artist working in branding and marketing for over ten years. He is a contributor to various publications with a focus on new technology and marketing.

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