GM is hard at work on an infotainment upgrade that will make its cars function more like your smartphone. Scheduled to launch later this year on an unspecified model or series of models, the app framework will allow you to download and utilize apps built specifically for your GM vehicle. Gizmag caught up with GM at the New York Auto Show to take a closer look.

Apps, apps, apps ... smartphone sold separately

GM announced at CES in January that it would open up a software development kit, allowing app developers to build programs specifically for its vehicles.

Instead of relying on your smartphone for apps, the way current generation GM systems do, the new architecture will allow you to view, download and use apps directly from the touchscreen infotainment system. In other words, the infotainment system will act like your smartphone or tablet rather than as an extension of it, as is the case with other systems. The apps will be accessed with a GM cloud-based login, so they'll be available in other compatible vehicles.

"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," GM Chief Infotainment Officer Phil Abram said in a CES statement. "It’s not just taking phone apps and making them function in a car, which most car companies do in some form now. Instead, GM may approve applications that stem from vehicle ownership. For example, customers can choose to download applications that assist them in driving more safely or in a more fuel efficient manner, possibly decreasing the costs of vehicle ownership.”

For starters, the apps will include usual suspects like music, weather, navigation and news. On a pre-production version equipped to the 2014 Buick LaCrosse, GM had a handful of apps, including Slacker, The Weather Channel, NPR and TuneIn Internet radio. From there, GM believes that the future is wide open and, frankly, can't even begin to imagine what new features and functions will be available in its vehicles in a few years' time. Future apps could provide help with maintenance reminders, vehicle diagnostics and fuel economy monitoring.

"The sky is the limit," Robert Bannick, an engineer working on the project told us. "The whole point is that we don't know what will be popular in six months or six years. But this allows us to be ready for it, and when it's certified and pushed to our apps app, customers can download it and their ownership experience is that much more enhanced."

GM's current suite of apps is free, but Bannick said that it is possible that the future will bring premium paid apps. In that case, the GM login could be tied to a credit card, as is the case in other app stores.

While GM is committing to new technology, it's taking safety into consideration first. "The amount of driver distraction their app creates is carefully reviewed and goes through a certification process," Bannick said.

Certification is a multi-stage process whereby GM analyzes the app for potential issues, conducts drive testing, and certifies it only when it's satisfied that it offers an experience that is both beneficial and safe to the consumer. To further ensure safety, GM reserves the right to restrict certain apps and app features during driving. For instance, while you can quickly glimpse at The Weather Channel's five-day forecast while commuting down the highway, more in-depth features like Doppler radar will be unavailable during driving. Bannick also mentioned that the thousands of Internet radio stations available on TuneIn can be shaved down to a more manageable list while the car is in motion.

The power of 4G

At launch, GM's new app functionality will rely on a tethered smartphone for data access, but future GM customers will be able to cut the smartphone out of the picture completely.

At February's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, GM announced a new partnership with AT&T that will power future vehicles with integrated LTE 4G modems, a big leap from the 2G hardware it uses now. Instead of launching the new feature on a single model or two, it will launch it across most Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC 2015 models. It sees an integrated modem as a solution to customers that want to remain connected in their vehicles but don’t own a smartphone, tend to not carry the phone everywhere they drive, or simply prefer built-in hardware.

“Because we’ve had safety services, we’ve always felt it was important to have a built-in ability for the car to communicate,” Greg Ross, GM’s director of business development for the connected consumer, explained in a conversation with us. “What we announced in Barcelona was really an expansion of that vision. We can expand that built-in capability to not only deliver OnStar services but to deliver other services.”

“We think there’s justification for having a built-in connection in the car, so we’re building on that to make that available to customers that maybe don’t have a smartphone and a data plan or find it more convenient to use the built-in connection.”

The extra speed will help to support a new generation of data-heavy in-car features, which could include video streaming (for rear passengers) and an integrated Wi-Fi hot spot. It will also lay the groundwork for a new generation of vehicle-specific capabilities and services, such as real-time traffic and navigation updates. The AT&T deal is helping GM develop partnerships with app developers, since the telecommunications company already has plenty of experience in that field.

"While our 4G LTE network will provide fast, reliable mobile broadband for GM’s connected vehicles, we’re also looking forward to working directly with GM researchers and engineers as well as the developer community to invent new in-vehicle applications that will take full advantage of our powerful network,” Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO, AT&T Mobility, said in February.

GM is still working on designing 4G packages and pricing with AT&T.; Those folks that don't want to pay an extra subscription fee will be able to leave the 4G modem dormant and continue to use their smartphones as the access point for in-car apps and infotainment, thereby eliminating any redundant data fees.

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