When Fred Dixon pulls into his office parking lot on most mornings, he literally has his hands full and it’s not until he’s at his desk that he realizes he’s neglected to lock his doors. Where most people would be running back to the car, the technology planner for General Motors of Canada simply draws his smart phone from its holster and taps a button.
“I can lock it as I’m sitting down and turning on my computer,” he says. “People use this app in different ways and in very imaginative ways.” 

The app Dixon is referring to is GM’s OnStar Remote Link, available in Canada for iPhone and Android devices. It works with more than 20 models, from every GM brand: Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick and GMC. Not only can it lock or unlock doors remotely, but it can inform drivers of how much gas in the tank and how efficient fuel economy was on their last trip, display oil levels, or even start the engine.

“As people bring smart phones to their car, they want to be connected to their car in more ways than they are today,” Dixon says. Now car features worthy of the Batmobile are accessible in any smart phone users’ pocket. 

GM isn’t the only auto maker moonlighting as a mobile software developer. Ford, Nissan, Hyundai and BMW have all released smart phone apps in the past year that range in function from introducing drivers to a new car to directly interfacing with the car to control its features and monitor its maintenance needs—or even “Like” a friend’s Facebook status update.

As much as the apps offer car makers another value-added feature to stay competitive when luring new buyers, the apps are also about the acceptance that smart phone users want to access their devices in their car, but need a safer way to do so. A Pew Research project shows that 42 per cent of drivers admit to having texted while driving, and a 2011 J.D. Power and Associates study indicates that 86 per cent of smart phone owners say they use their device in their cars.

“A lot of people are using these applications by picking up the phone while they’re driving,” says Jim Buczkowski, director of electronics and electrical systems research at Ford Motors. “We think by leaving the phone in your pocket and being able to use a voice command is a far better way, a safer way, of using your applications.”

Ford’s AppLink feature ties into its SYNC Bluetooth connectivity system and enables voice-controlled access to apps available for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry. The app currently supports two Internet radio apps (Pandora, which is not available in Canada and Stitcher, which is) and OpenBreak, a Twitter client. Though currently only available for the Fiesta, Ford will include it in 10 new 2012 models such as the F-150, Fusion, and Mustang.

“All the customer has to do is download the Pandora applications, and it already has the Applink APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) built into it,” Buczkowski explains. “When they get into their Fiesta, they just have to ask for the application and it’s identified on the phone.”

More Applink enabled programs are coming soon, with 2,500 developers having registered with Ford to include the functionality. Future apps ranging from entertainment to health categories are possible, Buczkowski says, including one that helps diabetics with insulin pumps monitor the operation of their device.

Texting and drivingGM also launched a pilot test for its OnStar voice communications Android-based app in January. It allows drivers to send and receive text messages and Facebook status updates using their voice.

“We’re trying to bring that connectivity that you wouldn’t normally have without a smart phone,” GM’s Dixon says.

Smart phones aren’t the only mobile tech that auto makers are building for. Many are also turning their eye to tablets, which run similar operating systems to smart phones but offer more screen real estate to play with. Hyundai went so far as to include Apple’s iPad (first generation) with sales of its luxury Equus model launched last year. Equus drivers use the iPad to access a digital, touch-enabled owner’s manual for the vehicle.

“We wanted to make the ownership experience unique,” says Ken Maisonville, product planning manager for Hyundai Canada. “We know technology is important to these buyers, so we wanted to explain the technology in the Equus on the iPad.”

Driver dissatisfaction often arises from not understanding in-car technology, he adds, and a sexy tablet app might actually compel new owners to read the manual. Americans can also schedule maintenance for their Equus through the app, but that functionality isn’t available in Canada yet.

“That’s something we’d like to do. It’s more to do with the dealer network and the dealer software,” Maisonville says.  Hyundai dealers in the U.S. have a centralized infrastructure that is not in place in Canada.

Though most drivers still don’t use their smart phones in some sort of symbiotic relationship with their cars, auto makers are convinced more will in the near future. 

GM’s OnStar remote link has been adopted by 22,893 Canadians since its February launch, and has seen 68,000 interactions, Dixon says. Add that to the 130,000 users south of the border and 3.5 million interactions completed there since October. 

“The users increase every month in Canada, with about 600 new users,” he says. “We expect that will really explode once more new models come out.” 

Then more drivers that find their hands full will be able to pull the same remote door-locking trick as Dixon, and save themselves that extra lap between the office and the parking lot in the morning.