What do you get from a connected car app?

October 18, 2019

As cars themselves get smarter and smarter, the technology on our dashboards is becoming ever more intertwined with the devices we carry in our pockets. From simple maintenance reminders to functions that can turn a smartphone into an advanced key fob, connected car apps vary significantly in terms of capability⁠—and cost. 

Earlier this week, Ford announced that its connected-car app, dubbed FordPass, will be free moving forward. This is a big shift, especially for a mainstream automaker, and brings into sharp relief just how much both the functionality and cost structure of these offerings differ across manufacturers and, in some cases, even individual models. 

Free

FordPass was originally offered with one-, three- or five-year trial and switched over to a paid subscription model after that. Included in the free suite are remote engine start and shut-off, remote locking, maintenance tracking, and live chat with Ford experts who can walk owners through vehicle features and troubleshooting. Other conditional features are available as part of the basic app as well. 

The only feature that is not included in the free model is the in-vehicle wi-fi hotspot, which requires a paid data plan. Similar app suites from Toyota and GM will run customers $8 and $15, respectively, after their trial periods end. We expect that other manufacturers will follow Ford's lead, either making their connected services free, or adopting a "freemium" model. 

Freemium

Freemium apps are essentially the norm. Many automakers offer basic services (such as service and maintenance tracking) as complimentary app features, but require a subscription for advanced options like wi-fi hotspots, vehicle software updates, and remote vehicle access and monitoring features. The Toyota and Lexus apps, for example, are structured this way. Both offer free trials of their subscription services from the time of purchase (Toyota offers three months; Lexus offers a year), and charge $8 per month thereafter. 

Subscription features include remote start and shut-off, remote locking, parked vehicle location, maintenance and health reports, and stored data about driving performance and habits (fuel economy, etc.). Lexus also offers monitoring and alerts customizable via the app, so owners know when guests drive above certain speeds, for example. 

Ecosystems

Some cars benefit more from app connectivity than others. This is especially true of electric and alternative-fuel vehicles, which have needs above and beyond that of gasoline-powered cars. To that end, some manufacturers have created entire ecosystems around their EVs in the name of improving the ownership experience. These systems tend to address customer objections like range anxiety, locating charging or fuel stations, or tracking attributes like battery depletion and condition. 

Tesla offers one of the most comprehensive connectivity ecosystems in the automotive space. While it has recently transitioned to a freemium model which relies on an annual subscription for direct vehicle connectivity, Tesla's cars are themselves just as inherently connected as the smartphones that enable their companion app. Even without a data subscription, Tesla cars can connect to wi-fi hotspots to enable many of the app's remote features and receive software updates similar to the over-the-air process allowed by Tesla's Premium plan. 

These ecosystems are in many cases intertwined with third-party networks by necessity. EVs not backed by a manufacturer charging network (such as Tesla's superchargers) rely on private options. Networks such as EVgo and Electrify America have their own mobile apps, but some EV apps can talk directly to these networks to help drivers locate charging stations, initiate the charging process, and simplify billing (when applicable). 

Changing landscapes

While there are many different options available for those who want the latest and greatest in connectivity, the ultimate limiting factor is the age of your car. Many automakers have offered limited connectivity features in their vehicles for as much as a decade, but many rely on outdated modes of communication and may not even be compatible with their own modern apps. Cars older than the 2015 model year are unlikely to offer much in the way of app-enabled connectivity, as that was somewhat of a tipping point in terms of smartphone integration as a whole.

In the coming years, these apps are expected to become more capable and less expensive. With vehicle software updates becoming more commonplace and simpler to execute, newer cars will also be able to keep up with the pace of consumer technology far more easily than they have in the past, making these apps relevant for more shoppers (and owners), no matter whether they're buying new or used.

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