Many in-car Internet features will sync up with smartphones.

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In-car Internet Features and Services

When it comes to in-car Internet, there are the features and services available at the moment, and then there are the fascinating concepts on the horizon.

General Motors, BMW, Mini and other carmakers have developed their own customized applications. This means that once you install the app on your smartphone and connect the phone to the car's interface (through a Bluetooth connection, for example), the car displays a predefined set of applications on the car's infotainment system -- the term for the technology that enables audio, video, and Internet capabilities. Typically these functions appear on a dashboard-mounted monitor and can be controlled by manipulating knobs on a center console or by tapping areas on a touch screen. A phone equipped with Toyota's Entune app, for example, allows drivers to access the Bing search service, the OpenTable app to make reservations at local restaurants, and other features from a dashboard-mounted screen [source: Cunningham]. Common functions include sending and receiving e-mails, connecting to social networks like Facebook and Twitter, trip planning and navigation, and downloading music and podcasts. According to Cunningham, the personalized streaming radio service Pandora is among the most popular application being integrated into connected cars.

The future of in-car Internet connectivity is full of intriguing possibilities. For example, Ford is developing applications for its Sync system to monitor the blood sugar levels of diabetic drivers and pull up menus for nearby restaurants if their level drops [source: Boyle]. There are apps in development that would process data about a driver's position and offer location-based advertisements and promotions.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, IBM's Smarter Traveler application collects data about a user's driving habits, measures traffic flow in real time, and uses an algorithm to make predictions about congestion to help drivers plan their commutes [source: Boyle]. This is a timely development: Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Intelligent Transportation Systems program has been researching ways to develop a more efficient transportation system, using connected vehicles and infrastructure to reduce pervasive problems like congestion, accidents, and carbon emissions [source: U.S. Department of Transportation].

Whether every concept made possible by Internet connectivity comes to market is another matter, Cunningham says, since carmakers are typically conservative about which features they include in their vehicles.

What safety issues arise when cars are connected to the Internet? Read on the find out.