Car makers' apps - just a gimmick or actually useful?

Most car manufacturers now offer apps that can be used to control many of your car's functions. But are they really a useful addition to the vehicle? — dpa

Set your next day's driving route on your smartphone from the sofa, send it to your car's navigation system and tomorrow morning you're ready to go.

That's one common use for the apps offered by car manufacturers to accompany their vehicles. But are they good for anything else?

Logbook and remote control

"Almost every manufacturer offers suitable apps for their vehicles. However, many only have a few features," says Luca Leicht from an industry magazine.

One that can be useful, especially for company car drivers, is an integrated logbook. Some apps can also be used to find the parked car, to open or close the windows, and to lock or unlock the doors.

Apps can also be useful to check the fuel level and the remaining range. Some manufacturers, such as Mercedes and Mini, offer additional information about the engine in their apps, such as acceleration, engine load, and oil and water temperature.

Remote Smart Parking Assist or Remote Control Parking features, such as those from BMW, Hyundai, Tesla, and Mercedes, can simplify parking in and out of tight parking spaces.

Here, the car is remotely controlled into the parking space via an app on the driver’s smartphone or by using a special key.

Checking an e-car's charge status

"For certain vehicles such as electric cars, the apps can be used to read the current state of charge of the battery, and to precondition the car for this purpose. This is a real added value," Leicht says.

Preconditioning means regulating the state of charge of an electric car's battery and setting the desired temperature in the vehicle before departure.

However, Leicht is critical of the data protection policies of some apps. Data may be sent to the car maker without the driver being aware of it.

For that reason drivers should carefully read the data usage and data protection guidelines before installing such apps.

Seamless software updates

Sven Hansen, editor of the IT trade magazine c’t, welcomes the connectivity of cars via apps and their own ecosystems.

For one thing it means that software updates can be easily installed. "This updates the vehicle system, bugs can be fixed or new functions can be integrated," he says.

For electric vehicles, monitoring the charging process is very helpful, Hansen says. "The app tells you when the car is fully charged."

This is particularly useful in places where there's a fee if an e-car stays on the charger after it's been fully charged.

For Hansen, the crucial factor when using car manufacturers' apps and digital ecosystems is how the data is handled. "The functions should be presented transparently, and the user must know what happens to the data," he says.

With good systems, all the data can be viewed and services can be deactivated individually. Ideally, the customer should have complete control over the system.

Apps should make everyday driving easier

For Jan Burgard, managing director of the strategy consulting firm Berylls, car makers' apps are only useful if they facilitate and support driving.

"It becomes interesting when the car does not just react to the driver's commands, but proactively makes suggestions and makes daily life easier," he says.

For example, this could be advising the driver to leave earlier for an appointment because of a traffic jam or because you'll need to charge up on the way there. – dpa

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