Ask anyone with an iPhone or Android device about their favorite apps and you’ll likely hear about Angry Birds, the Evernote journaling app, and maybe a tool for tracking your next flight. Yet, some of the most innovative apps are for your car. Surprisingly, many car owners could use these apps if they knew how to find them (just search Apple iTunes or the Android Market) and make the connection. In most cases, once you download the app, you just follow the prompts, add your VIN, and off you go.
Many recent Chevy models – including the new Volt electric range extended car and the GMC Sierra Denali truck we tested for this article – can use the MyChevrolet iPhone app. It’s a free download and works through the OnStar MyLink service. (Most new Chevy models, even the Cruze Eco, come with OnStar.) Once installed, you can check tire pressure, see the fuel or charge level, lock and unlock the doors, and request roadside assistance. MyChevrolet adds a few extra perks, though. If you check tire pressure and find you have a flat tire, you can report the problem and request help. When you park, you can set a timer and get an alert when your time at a parking meter is about to expire. The app is available for iPhone and Android models. There’s a helpful tutorial in the app that shows you how to use hard-to-find features on the dashboard, including the right switch for fog lights.
Mercedes-Benz was an early innovator with smartphone apps. The mbrace app, available for iPhone and BlackBerry devices, has the typical lock and unlock features, and a way to trigger an alarm if some hooded criminal approaches. From Google Maps, you can find a location and then send the navigation route to the car. With the app, you can also quickly find your vehicle on a map – say, locate the exact parking spot at an airport. Yet, mbrace is actually more than just an app. It’s more like OnStar in that the car’s 3G connection can report a collision, stolen vehicle, or some other emergency.
The theory behind the OnStar MyLink app, available for iPhone and Android, is that you can use the app with many different GM models – including the GMC Sierra we tested. One of the primary uses, and the one we used most often, is just to check the fuel level. Like the Ford Focus Electric app, you’ll see an easy-to-read fuel level graphic that shows you how many miles you can drive before going empty. You can also check the remaining oil life (aka, whether you need an oil change). You can lock and unlock the car, trigger a remote start, and flash the horn and lights in an emergency (or to find your car). The app also lets you find your car on a map. It is an advanced tool, but we’d like to see a better connection to the OnStar service itself – say, asking a question so an advisor can help you find a pizza place.
Ford MyFord Mobile
The upcoming Ford Focus Electric, which should come out later this year, will include a fantastic app that we tested in Detroit recently. The app adds a few extra features beyond the basic fuel level check. Instead, you can see your EV profile for the car and get a measure of how far you can drive according to your particular driving habits. For example, if you access the car to check the charge for yourself, you might see it will drive for 50 miles, since you tend to use hypermiler techniques and rarely brake. Your spouse might check the vehicle and discover there is enough charge for 45 miles. The app will also connect to the Microsoft Hohm service so you can see how the EV energy draw ties into home usage. One other perk: you can check to see when the car will start charging based on peak usage rules (usually, at night) or press a button to just start charging now, in case you know you’ll need the EV right away. Like the Nissan Leaf app, you can also pre-heat or pre-cool the car during the charge cycle. That means you won’t use the climate controls as much when you start driving and need all the power you can get.
The most graphically appealing app of the bunch, this iPhone-only tool provides a graphical view of charge state (such as being near empty or fully charged), time estimates for charge, and checks the total range. The Ford app goes a bit further by estimating based on actual driving patterns. However, Nissan includes a timer you can use to pre-heat or pre-cool the car as it charges right before your drive – say, at 4AM before you head out on a commute. You can also press a button to start charging now. We’d like to see a few extra options with this app – maybe a way to send a music playlist to the stereo or some options for finding the car when you use a public charger at the mall.
Also check out our Nissan Leaf review.