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Smart ForTwo iPhone app hits iTunes

Daimler has figured out a cheaper way to include a high-end head unit in its micro-car, and it's using iPhones to do it.

A very large iPhone at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show demonstrates smart's new iPhone app.
A very large iPhone at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show demonstrates smart's new iPhone app. CNET
Daimler found a cheaper way to include a high-end head unit in its fuel-sipping Smart ForTwo, and it's using iPhones to do it.

The micro-carmaker recently released its Smart Drive app ($9.99), which it showed at the Geneva Motor Show, on iTunes in U.S. and E.U., and it offers radio, Bluetooth, and geomapping capabilities. While any driver can download and use this app, Smart designed it specifically to fit in the dashboard of its ForTwo and integrate with the fun-size car when it's coupled with its proprietary Smart Drive kit--an iPhone cradle.

According to the German automaker,  it's the first manufacturer to develop a driving app that integrates with a vehicle using the iPhone.

Integration is the key word.

Smart Drive is not just another navigation application--it's essentially a head unit in an app. When used with Smart Drive kit, the application can tell when the phone is connected to the vehicle and when the vehicle is on. This integration enables the phone to act as a graphical interface for the Smart's radio system, provides Bluetooth capabilities with audio delivered through car speakers, and paves the way for navigational upgrades in the future.

Compact and subcompact cars typically don't have navigation or high-end audio systems as an option to keep their price point low. But this application simulates that experience by becoming a touch-screen interface for the existing radio unit, provides access to Internet radio stations in addition to providing access to music that is stored on the iPhone, enables hands-free calling, integrates maps, and includes local search using Microsoft Bing. While not currently available, according to Smart, the app will eventually include turn-by-turn directions.

I know what you're thinking: the iPhone already makes phone calls quite well on speaker, and you probably already have the Pandora and Google Maps on your phone. But Smart Drive integrates all these apps so that they work seamlessly in a single interface that has been meticulously designed by automotive user interface engineers who are painfully aware of all the regulatory and safety laws governing car communication systems. The large Simon Says-like buttons and large letters--they have been designed by Mercedes Benz researchers to be easy to read and use while on the road. According to Daimler developers, a lot of design and testing for safety goes into each feature, which is why additional functionality is being rolled out slowly.

With an all-in-one app, you won't have to clumsily switch between apps to get directions and miss listening to your favorite song on Pandora. In the future when Smart adds navigation to the app--for an extra fee--the application will be able to interrupt the music playback to get your attention so you can hear direction prompts.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Daimler's choice to use the iPhone as a low-cost platform to add telematics to a car opens up a host of infotainment and driving functionality that can be continuously updated rather than becoming obsolete after a few years. But eliminating expensive hardware also means that the Smart can compete on the same level as other subcompact cars and compact cars that offer factory-installed navigation systems without having to increase price--as long as you have an iPhone.

The app is only available for iPhone, although Daimler developers say that it will probably work on an iPad, albeit with less functionality since it won't fit in the smart kit cradle.  According to Daimler, it will consider developing apps for other smartphones as each reaches the appropriate market saturation. For example, there aren't many touch-screen BlackBerries on the market, and there are just too many models of BlackBerry to develop anything that will work on all of them.

However, Daimler thinks that it's on to something and that this strategy could be the wave of the future. It has been approached by other automotive brands about this technology, and Audi announced that the A2, if developed, could include its own app store to add more car features.