Is It a Car or a Computer? – Wall Street Journal

Touch screen of the Tesla Model S. Newer luxury cars are adopting controls that respond to a hand motion in the air.

Software developers are turning cars into rolling personal computers.

Lots of attention is still paid to horsepower, curves in the metal, and giving drivers the ultimate creature comfort behind the wheel: the ability to relax and let the car take over. But even as the industry accelerates toward a self-driving future, it’s the touch screen in the dashboard and the slick smartphone app that increasingly sway buyers’ decisions in the showroom.

Many vehicle models now offer versions of the iPhone or Android interface in the car’s touch screen, giving users the familiar look and feel of their smartphones. Meanwhile, app developers are leveraging the car-phone link and improved voice-recognition systems to offer extras such as music streaming and the ability to send or receive text messages with hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

The technological sprint toward the connected car faces potential roadblocks, though. State and federal regulators are grappling with how to prevent all of that tech from becoming a dangerous distraction. Semiautonomous features such as hands-free highway steering and lane changing are under scrutiny after the fatal crash in May of a Tesla car using its Autopilot system.

Security is another factor. Earlier this year, two car thieves in Houston were caught on camera using a laptop to hack into the ignition system of a 2010 Jeep Wrangler and steal it. Last year, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles


NV had to recall 1.4 million cars after two hackers showed they could control a 2014 Jeep Cherokee’s engine and other systems through a software loophole.

Indeed, newfangled in-car technology carries risks for auto makers. In recent years, surveys by research firm J.D. Power & Associates have shown a jump in consumer complaints about clunky voice-recognition systems and infotainment systems that aren’t intuitive and easy to use. Those gripes have been known to send a car brand’s quality ratings plunging in closely watched consumer surveys.

Those caution flags aside, car companies haven’t stopped trying to fill vehicles with the digital functionality that consumers are pining for. Here are seven innovations that are available on some vehicles today, or will be in the near future.

Lock and unlock with your phone: German automotive supplier Continental AG


recently showed a system that would allow an owner’s smartphone essentially to serve as a virtual key. Using technology called Bluetooth low energy, the car recognizes the smartphone in the user’s pocket or purse upon approach, unlocking the doors and allowing the engine to be fired up. The feature is not expected to hit the market for at least 18 months. Ford Motor Co.


and General Motors Co.


already have smartphone apps for newer models that can remotely unlock and start their cars.

Give your car a virtual checkup: Drivers can be alerted to lurking service issues such as low tire or oil pressure via an app from AutoNet Mobile Inc., based in Santa Rosa, Calif. The app automatically loops in the owner’s dealership and can help schedule service appointments when needed. GM’s OnStar safety and entertainment system offers a feature on some models that monitors the status of the vehicle’s starter motor, fuel pump and 12-volt battery, sending an alert at any sign of trouble. GM says the system reduces unnecessary repairs and helps avoid bigger problems down the road.

Touch screens you don’t need to touch: Many auto makers are phasing out radio buttons and knobs for touch screens. Now, some are going a step further with the use of gesture-control technology, which allows the driver to control radio and other commands through hand signals. Using Delphi Automotive


PLC’s gesture control system, a driver’s twirl of the finger clockwise will raise the radio’s volume, for example. An incoming call can be batted away with a quick hand wave to the right. The system can be found on luxury models today, including BMW AG


’s 7 series luxury sedan.

Mirrors go high tech: A new rearview mirror from Gentex Corp.


, in Zeeland, Mich., provides a much wider view behind the car. The “rear-vision system” streams a high-definition image to the mirror from a camera mounted on the rear of the vehicle, roughly doubling the driver’s rear field of vision. It also eliminates the obstructed view from the vehicle’s pillars and back-seat headrests. The system made its debut in the Cadillac CT6 luxury sedan that went on sale this spring. The flip of a switch can restore the mirror’s conventional view, an important backup if the camera is obstructed by debris or fails to operate.

Valet parking by phone: German supplier Robert Bosch GmbH in June said it was developing a system that will let drivers park their cars with their smartphones from even a few hundred feet away from the vehicle. The car must first “learn” how to reach a specific spot, so it requires the driver to park in that spot once to program it. After that, the driver can get out and have the car park itself. Other suppliers and auto makers also are developing automatic parking, which will serve as a building block toward fully autonomous vehicles. Bosch’s system leapfrogs some others by its ability to navigate even into narrow spaces that require tight turns. The supplier estimates that it will be offered on a vehicle within two to three years.

Technology to prevent drowsy driving: Systems to keep drivers from nodding off at the wheel are going mainstream, several years after they began popping up on Mercedes and other pricey luxury models. Ford, Nissan,


Subaru and other car brands offer driver-alert systems that monitor inputs from the steering wheel and gas pedal to sense driver drowsiness and emit an audible or visual alert. Newer systems use cameras to monitor the driver’s face for signs of fatigue. Auto makers are likely to make broader use of such driver-monitoring systems as they roll out self-driving vehicles that require drivers to be alert and ready to take the wheel in certain situations. GM will include an eye-tracking system on its Super Cruise semiautonomous technology, due out next year on a Cadillac model.

Over-the-air updates: Consumers are accustomed to updating their smartphone apps and operating systems in a flash. But on a vehicle’s infotainment system, it isn’t that easy. Most cars still can’t upgrade an app or the touch-screen interface—the owner either is stuck with that system for the life of the vehicle, or must visit the dealership for a software upgrade. But increasingly auto makers are offering the ability to update some infotainment features “over the air,” without a service visit. Electric-car maker Tesla Motors Inc.


has made the broadest use of over-the-air updates, using the technology to update software that controls its Autopilot system and make other tweaks to the car’s driving dynamics.

Mr. Colias is a Wall Street Journal reporter in the Detroit bureau. Mr. Bach is a former Journal reporter. Email Mr. Colias at, and Mr. Bach at


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