Cars are the new smartphones: Chevrolet adding LTE and app store to 2015 models

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Apart from the engine, wheels, seats, and enormous difference in size, 2015 Chevys will be nearly indistinguishable from smartphones: General Motors is announcing at CES today that next year's lineup with be available with built-in LTE and an app store. The so-called Chevrolet AppShop is the end result of GM's news at CES a year ago when it first offered an app SDK to developers; LTE, meanwhile, has been in the works since an announcement in February of last year.

AppShop looks and feels like a rudimentary iOS App Store or Google Play, presenting a list of available apps that's called up by tapping an icon on the car's touchscreen. Downloaded apps can be updated automatically, rearranged on the home screen, and deleted at will. At launch, there won't be many apps to choose from — roughly a dozen have been announced so far — but don't expect the catalog to suddenly explode. "I want to stress this point, we're not here trying to say we're going to have thousands of apps. It's not about the quantity of apps. We recognize that there are some things that are really beneficial either to the driving experience or the ownership experience," says Tim Nixon, CTO of GM's Global Connected Consumer division.

Don't expect thousands of apps to choose from

Apps that have been announced so far include The Weather Channel, Slacker Radio, and NPR, among others; by the end of the year, GM expects to launch a Vehicle Health app that will give the driver a detailed view of the car's diagnostics and let them schedule a dealer service appointment through the dashboard. In testing the system on a pre-production 2015 Corvette Stingray this weekend, apps (and the AppShop itself) were slow with relatively poor touch response — anyone used to a modern tablet will feel like the system is a full step behind. It's usable, but a faster processor could've made a big difference.

The company is heavily curating the AppShop catalog — developers can't independently push new apps without GM's approval like they would in Google Play, in part because the ever-increasing complexity of the dashboard is an obvious breeding ground for distracted driving. An app that demands the driver's undivided attention isn't going to get approved; in fact, GM is careful to note in AppShop's press release that available SDK features like text-to-voice help keeps eyes on the road, not on the touchscreen. Apps will also have the capability to change modes when the car starts moving — they could transition to a view with less text, bigger buttons, and the automatic disabling of more complex features, for instance.

AppShop and many of the apps available in it use a data connection, which is where GM's LTE announcement comes in. The company is partnering with AT&T on the deployment in the US — they're being coy about pricing, but it sounds like owners will be able to add a car to their Mobile Share plan to share an existing data bucket or sign up for a new data-only plan, possibly through GM's OnStar service instead of through AT&T itself.

AT&T's getting in on the revenue stream

What GM isn't spending much time talking about is that AppShop — and its connected platform as a whole — can be configured to use a phone's cellular connection over Bluetooth instead of using the car's own LTE. That's exactly what AT&T is ostensibly trying to avoid: the emergence of the connected car presents an enormous new revenue opportunity from drivers looking to stream music and look up movie times on their dashboards, and if they're not paying extra to connect their car to the network, that's money lost. GM notes that the car's connection should have improved reception in many areas thanks to the high-mounted external antenna, but still, many drivers may opt to simply connect their phones if they're aware that they can do so.

Look for AppShop and LTE connectivity to launch first on the 2015 Corvette, Malibu, Impala, and Volt, followed by a wider rollout toward the end of the year.

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