Computer technology in cars

Right now, the most advanced computers in cars are on the devices many drivers already have in their pockets when they get behind the wheel.

Smartphones and tablets have outpaced the in-car dashboard computer, thanks to quicker development times and more user-friendly interfaces. Now car companies are working hard to catch up.

The next generation of dashboard touchscreens, dubbed “infotainment” systems by the carmakers, are already showing up in commercially available vehicles.

As Consumer Reports noted this month, these systems can frustrate motorists when they’re buggy or overly complicated. This is one reason why carmakers are now approaching them like intuitive, app-laded smartphones.

Chevrolet’s MyLink is developing an in-car app store where drivers can get familiar tools such as social-location app Glympse, streaming-music app iHeartRadio and others.

And Volvo’s Sensus Connected Touch system goes beyond the usual entertainment offerings to offer historical and cultural information about passing landmarks while turning the car into a Wi-Fi hotspot and a mobile-payment system for parking lots.

At first glance, dashboard touchscreens might seem like a safety hazard to drivers already tempted to peer at their phones. But one argument for these in-car systems is that they can actually cut down on distracted driving by controlling what the driver can and cannot do while in motion.

These computer screens can even help manage a driver’s attention by shutting down nonessential features and sounding messages to refocus the driver on the road.

Today’s vehicles also are marrying dashboard touchscreens with heads-up displays that beam speed, traffic and navigation info onto the windshield, directly in the driver’s line of sight. Again, this helps keep the driver’s eyes on the road instead of the dashboard or, worse, their phone.

In-car systems are increasingly engineered to work with smartphones and tablets. Chevy, Honda and other carmakers have partnered with Apple to equip cars with an eyes-free mode for Siri, the voice assistant on the iPhone. The system lets drivers tell Siri to send messages, create calendar events or activate turn-by-turn navigation, all without having to fumble with their phone.

And Google has teamed up with GM, Audi, Honda, Hyundai and other carmakers to bring its popular Android operating system to car dashboards by the end of the year.

Next up are in-car apps that follow you seamlessly to your mobile device once you exit a vehicle. BMW’s i3 concept car is compatible with the Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, while Mercedes is working on an app for the Pebble smartwatch that feeds the wearer such relevant info as their car’s location in a parking garage.