Best smartphone applications for car lovers

App your ride

By Mathieu Yuill
February 25, 2011

The obvious starting point for any smartphone-wielding car lover is a navigation app, but a slew of new software now focuses on everything from measuring fuel economy to live streaming video from a dash-mounted camera. If you like apps and you like driving, read on.

myCar Park
Cost: Free
Platform: iPhone

While technically a navigation app, myCar Park is also handy for people who occasionally forget where they’ve parked. It’s especially helpful if you parked on a street while shopping in and around a neighbourhood.

Once you’ve parked, myCar Park allows you to geotag your spot, take a photo of it and even add notes like stall number and parking level. When you’re ready to return to your car, simply open the app and click “walk to car.” It displays the best route and takes you directly to your ride.

Ford Sync Applink
Cost: Free, but requires a compatible Ford
Platform: Android, BlackBerry, with iPhone coming in early 2011

Currently available on 2011 Ford Fiestas and coming this year to Ford’s line of Mustangs, Applink allows users to plug their smartphone into their car and control certain apps in a variety of ways.

Ford Sync is already one of the best voice-recognition systems available for navigating digital music players and making calls, but until now, apps like Pandora (a music streaming service), OpenBreak (a mobile client for posting updates to Twitter) and smartphone-based navigation apps were only useful when not behind the wheel.

The new software allows you to plug your smartphone into the console and control it via the eight-inch touch screen, through steering-wheel-mounted controls or by voice. Using Pandora through Applink, for example, users can skip, “thumbs up” and search for their favourite songs.

Ford has improved Sync every year since its introduction in September 2007, and Applink is an expression of that continued development.

ContourGPS location-aware HD sports camera
Cost: Free. Camera costs US$349, Bluetooth encryption card is US$30
Platform: iPhone

Contour makes rugged little HD cameras that can be mounted on your dash, helmet or just about anywhere. Trail riders like to mount them on their handlebars to capture all the action of a downhill mountainside scramble.

The camera’s built-in GPS allows for tracking of location, elevation and speed, but until recently you had to eyeball the orientation of the camera and hope you set it for the right angle.

But Contour recently launched a smartphone app that allows you to stream live video (albeit at eight frames per second) in order to ensure you have the frame you want. It accomplishes this via Bluetooth, so it’s not designed to allow groups of people to watch the action on their phone as you tear around the track. Further development could improve the frame rate and perhaps offer Wi-Fi connectivity.

Cost: $12.99
Platform: iPhone

This one is just fun. Dynolicious makes use of the iPhone’s built-in accelerometer to measure all the stats you’d want: lateral Gs, 0 to 100 km acceleration, quarter-mile elapsed time, horsepower…essentially, all the numbers you would get from being timed at a drag strip.

It’s pricey at US$12.99, but it performed just as accurately as a standalone unit costing 15 times as much. Not bad for a smartphone app.

A history feature allows you to track results based on modifications made to your car. So for example, one set might include results based on 17-inch wheels and a stock exhaust, while results from a week later would reflect the installation of 15-inch wheels and an after-market exhaust.

And what would be the point of knowing how fast your car goes if there wasn’t some way to brag? Built-in functions allow you to post directly to Facebook and Twitter.

Dynolicious supports both imperial and metric units of measurement, so users on the forums you frequent can all speak the same language. The app can even export graphs for offline review.

Cost: Free, pro version requires US$5 donation
Platform: Android

There are many fuel mileage calculators but aCar, available for Android, rises well above the rest.

Like most apps for fuel tracking, it includes fill-up costs, maintenance and general expenses for your vehicles. You can also separate business from personal kilometres. aCar also tracks when you should take your car in for service based on either distance or time, and displays alerts in the phone’s status bar.

Where aCar really shines is with its graphical charts and reports. Via a bar or line graph, aCar displays fuel efficiency, price and overall costs, service costs, general expenses, distance between fill-ups, price per litre, litres per fill-up and a handful of other factors.

The data can be exported to a CSV file for further examination in a compatible spreadsheet application. Some features are only available with the pro version, which requires a minimum donation of US$5.

Find My Car
Cost: Free
Platform: PalmOS

A lot of apps provide wayfinding via on-board smartphone GPS, so the concept behind Find My Car isn’t mind blowing, but the app is intuitive and easy to use.

Navigating the app (placing pins) is easy as the developers made the buttons large and easy to hit. Placing a pin also brings up the address, instead of simply the physical location. This is helpful when tall buildings might block a GPS signal, leaving you temporarily directionless.

A handy metered timer feature allows you to track time remaining on a meter or the next time window on that expensive every-half-hour-or-less parking garage. As the time runs out your phone alerts you with a tone and vibration.

My Car Buddy
Cost: TBA
Platform: Windows Phone 7

This app is the pet project of Steven Withey, a developer for an insurance company. Withey’s app is clean, easy to read and packed full of useful features.

A fuel economy calculator allows you to quickly type in the distance travelled and amount of fuel used, to give you either a miles per gallon or litres per kilometre result.

A journey function calculates elapsed time, average speed and distance to your destination. This could be used, for example, to test different routes to work or a family member’s house.

This app is still in development but there is plenty of buzz about it in the Windows Phone 7 community.

Cost: App is free, Viper hardware is approximately $700
Platform: iPhone, BlackBerry, Android

From Viper comes SmartStart, an app that allows for remote starting of your vehicle from anywhere in the world.

OK, you are not likely to start your car from a different continent, but think of the times when you can see the car from your office window in the dead of winter. Using a traditional remote starter, you’d be standing in that window holding your remote up to your eye in order to get it aimed correctly.

With SmartStart, as long as you and your car are in range of either Wi-Fi or a GSM cellular signal, the car will start. The app also features trunk release, unlock/lock/arm/disarm and a panic feature (aka “Where the heck is my car?”).

SmartStart also features a few parent-friendly processes: speed alert notifies you if the car is being driven over a pre-determined speed, a curfew setting indicates where the car is at set times, and social media check-in alerts you when the vehicle arrives at home. These features alone are usually only available as a standalone product with a monthly subscription cost.

SmartStart allows for multiple vehicles to be controlled from each smartphone and you can assign more than one user to control a vehicle, helpful if you and your spouse drive each other’s cars.

In development is a home-control function that would switch the screen to your home security interface with the flick of your wrist (on iPhone) when you get in your car.

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