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From downloads to apps and even in-car tech… can they make us smarter drivers?

5 minutes

Advances in in-car tech and mobile driving apps are being used to make cars a whole lot smarter. So, let’s take a look at what’s possible…

  • Can mobile apps make us safer drivers?
  • What if we told you a download could improve your car?
  • How can in-car tech protect both drivers and cars?

Some apps to make you a smarter driver

Waze

Waze is a free to use sat nav solution which sends real time traffic information such as accidents, police activity and traffic jams to the Waze community. On top of that, it provides turn-by-turn voice navigation, automatic re-routing and the ability to send your ETA to your friends so they know you're on the way.  No more saying you’ll be there in five when you haven’t even left your house yet!


Carcorder

Carcorder is a dashcam for less than £2. This app turns your iPhone into an effective dashcam, allowing you to switch between multiple resolutions, autosave recordings and track your location. Gone are the days of disputes over who was to blame in an accident – the carcorder sees and saves it all.

Parkopedia

Parkopedia is a free mobile app for drivers on the hunt for a parking space. It lists parking space availability in real-time, plus it tells you opening times, prices and payment methods and can even give you directions straight to the space. The app works in most UK towns and drops a pin in all the available parking spaces via an interactive map. No more driving around and around the same car park hoping for a space to magically appear!

iOnRoad

For less than £1, iOnRoad is an augmented reality app which uses your phone's camera and GPS, detecting how long it would take for you to collide with the vehicle in front of you. A colour-coded chart tells you if you're getting too close, making sure you don't tailgate the car in front. 

PlugShare

PlugShare is a free app which pinpoints the nearest charging stations for electric and hybrid cars. It features a database of charging spots all over the UK, so you can plan your route around convenient places to stop and charge your car. This app could save the day if you find your car battery has run out of juice.  Zap-Map does a similar thing but can actually be used from your car smart screen and not just your phone.

Servicefy

Servicefy can help you to keep track of MOT dates, service intervals and tax renewal times. You simply input your vehicle details and the app will keep on top of any regular maintenance reminders for you. No more last minute calls to the garage for your MOT!

Can I download apps to my car?

Yes…you can! We won’t get into what car can do what with which app, but it’s definitely worth looking in to for your specific car or chosen app, plus, with SmartDeviceLink (SDL), you can now connect your smartphone to your car’s infotainment system, allowing you to view the apps on the vehicle’s screen. So,you can use your car screen as you would your phone (not while you’re driving of course!) 


Can I update my car like I do with my phone?

We’re all used to downloading updates to our phones, but imagine going down to your car in the morning to find it’s been updated. Well, that’s now a reality, thanks to downloadable upgrades for smart connected cars. For example, over-the-air software updates made the Tesla Model S quicker overnight. An upgrade like this qualifies as a performance modification, so would have to be declared to your car insurance provider, but beyond Tesla’s technology, car apps can make your driving experience better, safer and even more economical.

Most manufacturers, such as Volkswagen, include apps such as mapping, voice control and app connect on their cars’ infotainment systems, with regular updates available for download. Volkswagen have said they’re also working on the next phase of software downloads. ‘We’re developing technology that may allow automatic updates to vehicle’s infotainment systems in future products, possibly starting with the all-new electric I.D. range of cars.’ reveals a Volkswagen spokesperson.

Smarter software, safer systems

It’s not just fun and games though, car apps can make your driving experience a whole lot safer too, with modern cars containing software that manages everything from the engine and braking to collision detection and entertainment. For example, following Hurricane Urma in Florida, Tesla ‘flipped a switch’ that changed the software on its cars to extend their ranges, allowing owners to flee the catastrophe to safety should they need to.

With GM and Bosch already working on rolling out over-the-air updates, it's estimated that 180 million cars will be built with this ability by 2022. Currently updates can be delivered via a USB drive on some cars such as Kia vehicles, but over-the-air updates still have the upper hand: they can be installed on the car without driver input, the same way we update our phones. It also means that a car with a software problem which might have meant a recall in the past; could now simply be updated over the air so it's road safe. 

One concern with wireless updates is that hackers could potentially affect the car's driving systems, leaving it un-drivable or unsafe. However, thanks to deep levels of encryption this should be near impossible. A hardware security module, such as those developed by ESCRYPT, essentially acts as a software security guard, only letting recognised updates access certain systems. ‘Firmware over-the-air (FOTA) updates have many advantages for car manufacturers and owners, but at the same time, we face new IT security challenges, due to data transfer over wireless networks’
says Thomas Stimm, Security Engineer at ESCRYPT 

So, what tech is already on board?

Aside from apps and downloadable updates, lots of modern cars come with clever tech as standard. Automated driving systems have moved at a seriously fast pace, with research from Bosch (a supplier of advanced vehicle technology), finding that 55% of new passenger cars registered in Great Britain in 2016 were equipped with some kind of parking assistance system – ranging from parking sensors to automated parking technology.


Managing modes

Thanks to the computerisation of engine mapping, steering response and chassis dynamics can now be changed with the flick of a switch, so we no longer have to choose between a sports car and a comfortable motorway cruiser.

Many models from the premium players, including Jaguar, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, feature adaptive driving modes that allow the driver to alter the character of the vehicle at the press of a button. Sport mode, for example, will usually firm up the suspension, increase the throttle sensitivity and sharpen the steering response. 

A lot of manufacturers also include a button for adverse weather conditions, such as snow, ice and rain, which informs the traction control and stability control systems, and often reduces power sent to the wheels to avoid wheelspin or skidding.


Better connected

The humble cassette player has largely been committed to the history books, and in its place now sits a plethora of touchscreens and interactive digital displays, which can do everything from offering navigational instructions to displaying a local weather forecast.

‘New European legislation came into effect last year that stated all new cars must have a SIM card installed so they can make SOS calls in the event of an emergency’  says James Day (@James_A_Day), tech specialist and editor of Stuff Magazine.

Some manufacturers are now piggy-backing on this feature and bundling in more connected services, such as live traffic information, news headlines and even music streaming, to make things a little less monotonous on the daily commute – but this often comes at an additional cost.


A final word of caution

If you think any of these apps could help improve your car journey, remember to download them at home, and set them up before you drive off. Please don't use your mobile phone behind the wheel and take care when using your in-car touchscreen display too. Not only is it dangerous, but you could also risk getting points on your licence if you're caught.

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