Hyundai blue link apple watch
(Hyundai Motor America)

There’s an interesting phenomenon in new cars. Soon, a major factor in what car you buy could be decided by what phone you carry in your pocket. More and more, your smartphone is becoming the brain behind most vehicles.

Smartphone apps are also becoming a driving factor behind buying decisions. Michael Dietz, senior group manager, connected car and owner marketing for Hyundai Motors America, says smartphone apps have become an influencer in the car buying process. “We have customers who say they are making a purchase because they see the vehicle is more advanced,” he says.

Andy Gryc, content conference director for the Los Angeles Auto Show's Connected Car Expo, says Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are being integrated by almost every major auto manufacturer. There are also aftermarket devices available from companies like Pioneer so older used vehicles can have the latest technology.

Gryc says younger fans of technology want to buy a car that matches their operating system preference. “If your life is all about the phone and you live through the phone, you want to find a car that supports that,” he says.

Dan Kinney, director, User Experience, Global Connected Customer Experience, General Motors, says smartphone apps are evolving from being a one-way communication tool to something that is more interactive. He says, “We went to a more functional user interface. We wanted it to be more like a tool you wield, instead of just an extension of the key fob.”

GM onstar remote link
(General Motors)

Chevrolet will offer both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay in its 2016 models. At that announcement in November, one day after Hyundai announced the availability of Apple CarPlay in its 2015 Sonata, Chevrolet cited Strategy Analytics data showing more than 2.3 billion smartphones in use globally.

Hyundai’s cloud-based Blue Link platform lets users access features like remote start and service information through devices like smartwatches and smartphones. The Blue Link Apple Watch app works with first and next generation Blue Link-equipped Hyundai models dating back to the 2012 model year.

The integration of smartphone apps in vehicle infotainment systems is being sold, in part, as a safety issue by Hyundai. When it became the first manufacturer with Android Auto in May, it cited a NHTSA survey released in 2013 of driver electronic use that estimated 660,000 drivers use their phones or other electronic devices on the road.

Gryc says, “It makes sense to build systems that encourage appropriate behavior while driving. Texting and driving is equivalent to drunk driving. It’s 23 times more dangerous to be texting than be on a hands-free phone call.”

Both Dietz and Kinney say their companies are finding success by offering the latest technology across their full vehicle lineups. “Our big strategy … we look at this as a democracy kind of thing. We don’t want to go into just one model,” GM's Kinney says.

Hyundai's Dietz adds, “From an owner experience, it’s about evolving this tech to everyone. While other manufacturers promote it as exclusive, we’re bringing this to the masses.”

Customers are also demanding apps that are useful and not “gee whiz” technology, according to Dietz. “Consumers are astute and practical. They know what they want to do in the car. ‘Help me do what I need to do [versus] something that’s fluff,’ they tell us,” Dietz says. "Customers aren’t that interested in things not related to the drive or in-vehicle experience.”

Along those lines, maintenance has also become a key part of smartphone apps. As Kinney observes, maintenance may be mundane and not “sexy” but in the winter months tires get cold and deflate. “We’re making sure you’re informed because it affects the safety of driving. When you reach into [GM’s] Remote Link, there’s a link to remind you about tire pressure.” He adds it can also be used to schedule oil changes as well as for a pre-trip maintenance check.

Dietz says at Hyundai the ability to remotely lock a car is more popular than unlocking a car. Remote start leads the list of most popular smartphone app uses. The same is true at GM, where during cold weather snaps, up to 150,000 vehicles an hour are being remote started.

Smartphone apps are also proving effective in helping people locate their cars. Dietz says people are in a hurry and often forget where they park. An app can now lay a “bread crumb” trail back to where you parked your car.

At Hyundai, Dietz says smartphone apps are also proving popular with consumers who trust them for service advice. “In some cases we’ve heard in focus groups [they] actually trust the car more than hearing from the service advisor. There’s something about this unbiased [opinion]. The car has nothing to gain from this besides making it feel better. It’s perceived as non-biased like when a computer tells you an update is available.”

While it’s not so much an app, smartphone owners and other Internet-dependent device users will appreciate the rollout of connectivity through their vehicles. Kinney says all new GM vehicles in the U.S. and Canada will have available OnStar 4G LTE Wi-Fi hot spots. They can be controlled by apps and track data usage.

Gryc points out that regardless of what operating system you use, the phone is just one element of the technology. You still need good software in the vehicle. “You’re going to want to focus on companies that are doing over-the-air updates. A lot of people think if they have CarPlay or Android Auto, the phone does all the work. There’s a lot of critical software in the head unit that has to be updated. If you can’t update that, it doesn’t matter how great the phone app is.”