GM and Ford Open Up Their Vehicles to App Developers

Some car apps will mirror mobile ones, while others will add new functionality, the auto giants say.

Independent developers could find innovative new ways to use the computers in cars—but safety and security challenges remain.

Ford and GM both used the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week to announce that they want software developers to create apps for their cars, and that they will open up their vehicles’ computer systems just as smartphone makers do with their devices.

Auto companies have experimented with software that connects phones and cars, but Ford and GM are the first to open the way for any software developer to create an app that runs on a vehicle. The move is intended to make cars more attractive to younger buyers. But giving third parties some control over the driver’s experience isn’t without potential risks to driving safety and to security.

Ford was the first to make its pitch to app developers at a press conference on Monday. The program is an expansion of the company’s Sync software, which is already found in many vehicles and was developed in collaboration with Microsoft. Up to now, the apps created for Sync were made with close partners of Ford.

The new system is closer to Apple’s App Store. Anyone can access the tools needed to create a Ford app and submit it for approval and distribution through Ford’s store. Unlike Apple, Ford makes those apps available free.

GM announced a similar program soon after Ford, saying that apps made by third-party developers would appear in an “app catalogue” that will be available for GM cars in 2014. Ford and GM will allow apps to interface with cars’ audio and display systems and to access some data from the engine, such as mileage and speed. They will access the Internet through a tethered phone or a car’s own Internet link.

Both Ford and GM demonstrated some prototype apps at CES, including radio apps TuneIn and iHeartRadio and a Weather Channel app.

“There will be a category of apps that will be unique to our cars and very different from what people use today on their smartphones or tablets,” said GM chief infotainment officer Phil Abram. “GM may approve applications that stem from vehicle ownership; for example, customers may choose to download apps that assist them in driving more safely or in a more fuel-efficient manner, possibly decreasing the costs of vehicle ownership.”

An example of a mobile app suited to cars was provided by Glympse, whose app is already available for Ford’s Sync system; it lets drivers share their location with family or friends with a single voice command or the press of a dashboard button. “We knew that with the right experience it could be more intuitive and easy to use in the vehicle,” said Brian Trussel, the founder of Glympse. User data shows that many people already use the app while in the car, he added, and a version integrated with the car is safer to use that way than one on a mobile device. Both Ford and GM also discussed the potential for apps that recommend nearby businesses.

Carmakers will have to tread a fine line between luring customers with apps and increasing the risk of distracted driving. “Seventy-five percent of smartphone owners believe it’s important to connect their smartphone to their vehicles, but smartphone users are twice as likely to use their phone while driving,” said Hau Thai-Tang, vice president for engineering and global product development at Ford, at a press briefing. “This puts us at a very critical point.”

Ford’s solution is to use its Sync technology to enable apps to be controlled by voice. That way drivers can keep their hands on the wheel, if not necessarily their minds on the road. The company will also not accept apps that it deems hazardous to safe driving.

“There are some types of apps that we can’t accept,” said Julius Marchwicki, who leads Ford’s developer program. Examples include “video content or rich imagery, apps that require extensive text, and apps that involve playing games.” GM pledged to apply similar controls.

Opening cars up to app makers may bring other risks. Security researchers showed in 2011 that they could unlock and control the functions of both Ford and GM vehicles by exploiting their software without even touching a vehicle (see “Taking Control of Cars from Afar”). After Ford’s announcement at CES yesterday, hacker Andrew Auernheimer, aka Weev (see “Jail Looms for Man Who Revealed AT&T Leaked iPad User E-mails”), suggested on Twitter that the new features would create more security problems.

Ford and GM have designed their app platforms to confine apps inside a “sandbox” so that they can’t access unintended parts of a car’s system. But Auernheimer pointed out that this tactic often falls short—for example, in the case of Google’s Chrome Web browser. “If Google couldn’t make a perfect sandbox, what makes anyone think the Ford Motor Company can?” he tweeted.

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