Two of Chrysler's cars are morphing into smartphones, sort of -- right down to the ability to access their own "app store."
The 2013 models of the Ram 1500 pickup and the SRT Viper sports car, expected to hit the market later this year, will come with a few features born from Chrysler's partnership with Sprint Nextel, announced in March. Among them: the vehicles can act as mobile WiFi hotspot, send text messages via voice command, and offer emergency and location services using the Sprint 3G network.
Automobiles represent a new frontier for the wireless carriers, one that could supplement their rapidly maturing contract subscriber businesses. The carriers are deadly serious on this front: AT&T's emerging devices unit has had a heavy focus on automotive services for years, and Verizon Wireless last month acquired Hughes Telematics to expand its presence in the industry.
The win with Chrysler is a big deal for Sprint, a badly needed shot in the arm for a company that's still slowly turning itself around. The company's connected-devices business appeared to be poised for explosive growth with its deal to provide wireless service for the original Amazon Kindle e-reader -- but it was soon surpassed by AT&T, which took over the Kindle contract.
"We believe this has positioned us quite well," said Matt Carter, president of wholesale and emerging solutions for Sprint.
Chrysler, meanwhile, said the new features in the Ram and Viper are what the next wave of consumers want in a car.
"One area we focus on is the next generation of buyers who do not know a world without the Internet and connectivity," said Marios Zenios, head of Chrysler's Uconnect systems and services division, which deals with any technology in the car. "We know for a fact that our customers are asking for these types of services and experiences."
Zenios said Chrysler owners will get an app store of sorts for their car. Owners can log on to a Uconnect website and choose what apps they want to use -- i.e., ones related to safety, entertainment, or navigation -- and the car will download them via Sprint's network. While there won't be more than a smattering of apps available at the outset, Zenios said he is working hard to drum up interest among third-party developers who could provide new features and capabilities.
Like smartphones and tablets, the car will be able to act like a mobile hotspot. Owners can log on to the Uconnect website and pay for access, allowing any WiFi-enabled device to go online while in the car. Zenios said that drivers already registered to the site can pay for access while in the car as well.
In addition, a number of emergency and customer service features can be accessed via the mirror. Other more standard services, such as voice-command text messaging, navigation, and phone calls, will also be available. Both companies, however, are looking forward to what they called a next-generation slate of services, although neither offered more than hazy generalities as to what those might be.
"It brings a new area of services into the vehicle," Carter said. "We're not only looking at today's needs, but the needs of the future."