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New Ford Acquisition Could Put More Smartphone Apps on Your Dashboard

Livio began building Internet radios but shifted to in-car connectivity.

by on Sep.27, 2013

Ford has purchased Detroit software house Livio to help it expand the number of apps it can offer in-car.

Ford Motor Co. has alternately won praise for its high-tech Sync infotainment system and been slammed for the problems with its MyFordTouch touchscreen interface.  But even as the maker struggles to resolve some of those problems it has taken a big step forward in its push to give motorists access to a wide range of smartphone apps and features.

The Detroit maker has acquired a small suburban Detroit start-up called Livio for $10 million with an eye towards making it simpler to link Sync with motorists’ smartphones.  The goal is to come up with an industry standard for connecting those devices. Curiously, Livio’s first big automaker client was Ford’s cross-town rival General Motors, which recently turned to the small, high-tech firm for help with the infotainment systems on its downsized Chevrolet Spark and Sonic models.

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“With the additional expertise Livio provides us, Ford intends to continue to lead the next generation of in-car connectivity with technology advancements that give consumers more options to access their devices on the go,” said Paul Mascarenas, chief technical officer and vice president, Ford Research and Innovation, in a statement.

Livio, based in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale, originally focused on the production of Internet radios – a line of products it has continued to offer even as it has switched focus to in-vehicle technologies.

“At Livio, our philosophy is centered on bringing customers more connectivity with less hassle,” said the firm’s co-founder and CEO Jake Sigal.

That positioned Livio at the center of what has become one of the fastest-growing niches in automotive technology.  Ford is just one of an array of automakers aiming to blur the lines between vehicle infotainment systems and the apps found on the typical smartphone.

(Automakers drive down prices, move high-tech features from luxury to mainstream. Click Here for more.)

For example, many of the newest Ford Sync-equipped vehicles can play music through the Pandora online service by accessing a motorist’s phone.  The new Chevy Sonic and Spark models allow buyers to add navigation for as little as $50 – a fraction of the traditional price – by purchasing a smartphone mapping app that then gets displayed on the touchscreen displays of the two minicars.

Part of the problem is that apps designed for a smartphone don’t necessarily work on a car’s larger screen – and even if they do, they may be focused on graphic displays. In a vehicle, the motorist’s attention can’t be drawn away from the road, say, to look at a weather map.

(Click Here for a look at Ford’s new Lincoln Black Label series.)

Livio’s approach has been to work as an intermediary between an automaker like Ford and, for example, an app developer like the Weather Channel.  In a discussion earlier this year, CEO Sigal explained that his company’s approach is to provide a uniform software standard that any app vendor can write to.  In turn, it’s Livio’s job to create an interface that can translate those apps so they work in a carmaker’s vehicle.

Think of it as a software translation house.

About 1.9 million vehicles were sold in 2012 capable of linking up with smartphones. According to London-based GSMA, which represents the global mobile industry, that’s expected to reach 21 million vehicles by 2018.  Meanwhile, Ford expected to have 14 million vehicles on the road around the world equipped with Sync by 2015.

The maker has been able to attract a number of customers by taking an aggressive stand on in-car connectivity solutions – but it also has had its share of problems. Last November, Consumer Reports magazine noted that Ford fell to 27th out of 28 car brands in its annual reliability survey. While there were some traditional mechanical issues cited by readers, the biggest problem was concerns about the functionality of Sync, MyFordTouch and MyLincolnTouch.

(What is all that data streaming in and out of your car actually worth? Click Here to find out.)

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One Response to “New Ford Acquisition Could Put More Smartphone Apps on Your Dashboard”

  1. Jorge M. says:

    Just what the braindead, driver distracted need: more apps to distract them. Good God I hope the siren chasers sue the auto makers for Trillions of dollars for willful negligence!