Technology

Turning your car into a mobile office

The latest car apps help you talk, tweet, and keep your eyes on the road.

Until now, voice-activated communications systems in cars have tended to work better in theory than in practice. Most require you to alter your voice, robot-like, as you bark out commands like, “Call Ray,” only to find you’re dialling Harry. Ford’s new ultra-sensitive MyFord Touch system, available this summer in 2011 Lincoln MKX and 2011 Ford Edge models, is designed to respond to 10,000 different simple commands, spoken in a user’s natural voice. Call out an address, and it’ll bring up your destination on a map. Ask your car, “Where am I?,” and it’ll show you.

Also imminent from Ford is the 2011 Fiesta, which will be the first car on the market to deliver voice-controlled smartphone apps via AppLink, a downloadable software for the company’s already popular FordSync technology. Initially the carmaker, which developed the software with Microsoft, will roll out three apps, compatible with BlackBerry and Android smartphones: Stitcher, which compiles and plays podcasts and other Internet audio; OpenBeak, which reads out your Twitter feed; and Pandora (not available in Canada), which streams Internet radio. Opening the apps is easy as saying “Open Stitcher.” Ford is also planning an iPhone-compatible version of AppLink for 2012.

“When we first launched SYNC, the goal was to connect vehicles with mobile devices,” says Ford developer Jason Johnson. “Now, it’s about connecting the vehicle to the driver.”

2010 Smart ForTwo
$14,990-$24,900

Smart Car is releasing an iPhone app that, once your device is docked and activated in the Smart Cradle ($300), will play Internet radio stations and podcasts, make hands-free calls while automatically muting the car’s speaker system, and find directions using its built-in navigation system. The assist features on the app help you remember where your car is parked and read traffic signs using your phone’s camera, then signal you when you’re going too fast.

2011 Chevy Volt
Available mid-2011

GM has improved its OnStar system by adding a mobile app for the battery-operated Chevy Volt. It is soon to be one of the greenest apps on the market-helping drivers save fuel by managing the car’s battery pack. The app can also check the car’s charge, be programmed to charge the car battery when electricity rates are low, and send you a text message or e-mail notification if you’ve forgotten to plug your car in.

2011 Audi A8
Available fall 2010

Audi has revamped its Multi Media Interface (MMI) infotainment system to make getting directions a simple, interactive and 3-D experience. By adding handwriting recognition to its touch screen, users can draw letters, or a variety of Asian characters, instead of typing on the keyboard to find their destination. Once the location pops up, the MMI can access Google Earth to steer you in the right direction.

2011 Kia Sorento
$23,995-$29,095

UVO, short for “your voice,” is being touted as the first infotainment system to rival Ford’s Sync and FordTouch. Though both systems have touch screen and voice command, UVO can add widgets to the screen, such as RSS feeds, weather reports, and social networking sites. When you’re driving, you can also control the widgets through the steering wheel, which features a button that vibrates as you scroll over menu options so you can keep your eyes on the road.