Automakers Are Embracing Smartphone Apps

But consumer acceptance is the true test – and it’s been patchy

If you’re in the market for a premium compact crossover SUV, you might consider Volvo models such as the Volvo XC60 or Audis such as the Q5. The Mercedes-Benz GLC and Lincoln Corsair also inhabit this space. When considering these vehicles and which one to buy, most people concentrate on certain features. These are typically cargo space, the number of seats, the standard-fit luxury equipment, the engine options, how many miles per gallon it gets, how much horsepower it has, and how good its general performance is. But nowadays, you also have to consider the automaker’s smartphone app and what it can do.

However, the approach to apps has been varied, and each automaker does its own thing. Staying with Volvo for a moment, there is a Volvo On Call app, a Volvo Manual app, and a Volvo Cars Media Server app. They all do different things and it can be tricky to figure out exactly what you should download to best enjoy your car. Hopefully, the salesperson is well-versed in these things – but they often aren’t. It’s unlikely that the type of app will sway your buying decision, but a quick review of a few automakers’ efforts will demonstrate the confusion.

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Smartphone apps (
Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

The Volvo Approach

Volvo’s most important app has arguably been Volvo On Call, which has been available for download to Volvo owners in the USA since 2015. It comes with a free four-year subscription on every new Volvo, after which it costs $200 per year. Some of its most notable features are:

  • Booking of service appointments. A Volvo owner can find their closest dealer and gain access to its dealer-management system, giving them a live view of available slots.
  • Cost estimates. When booking typical service work, the app can give cost estimates as well.
  • Volvo Valet. The app gives access to Volvo Valet, where your car is collected and a loan car dropped off while your car is in the shop. This feature even displays where your own or loaner is on the road, complete with an ETA. You can track work progress in the shop too.
  • Roadside assistance. This is also booked via Volvo On Call and offers the same tracking features.
  • Plug-in hybrid functions. If you own a PHEV Volvo, the app provides you with interesting data like your fuel economy and how much electricity you’ve used, what your CO2 footprint is, and how much driving you have done on electricity alone.
  • Additional features. Other car controls are available too, such as honking the horn, starting the engine, flashing the lights, or remotely locking or unlocking the car.

However, if you want to access your Volvo’s manual via your phone, you need a separate app for that. And if you want to access content such as videos on Volvo’s media server, you need yet another app for that.

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Volvo XC60 (
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The Lincoln Way

For comparison, let’s look at The Lincoln Way and the functionality it offers on the newest Lincoln vehicles:

  • Several remote-access control of convenience features
  • Remote locking and unlocking from your phone
  • Lincoln Access Rewards loyalty program
  • Lincoln Pick Up & Delivery vehicle-maintenance functionality
  • Access to roadside assistance
  • Access to vehicle data such as maintenance history and Vehicle Health Reports
  • Account services
  • 24/7 support service

Yet, despite all this, if you want to control your Lincoln family entertainment system from your phone, you need an additional app. And for Alexa functionality, you need yet another app.

Only As Good As The User Experience

Despite all the hype, most automakers aren’t technology companies and this is reflected in the often-frustrating infotainment interfaces offered by some. Tesla is arguably the exception to the rule. For the rest, the big decision is whether to go it alone and create an ecosystem at great cost or just opt for an existing operating system such as Google’s, as Polestar has done. Should carmakers let the in-house expertise go in favor of such a solution – and isn’t this an even bigger risk? We still don’t know what the dominating technology will be as things shake out.

What we do know is that an app is only as good as the experience and not all automakers get it right. It is, therefore, worth your while to read a review of an app to gauge its usability. There are three main problem areas:

  • Some apps simply offer insufficient information – for example, vehicle status, driving range, or fuel level – to justify a subscription fee.
  • Regardless of how many features are on offer, tests have shown that some apps can take ten to 20 seconds to unlock a vehicle and sometimes minutes to notify the owner. That renders it almost useless, since almost 90 percent of owners expect a response time of ten seconds or less.
  • All the options. As mentioned earlier, Volvo offers at least three apps that do different things and so does Lincoln. Many of these apps look very similar and people don’t know which one does that and what they should download.

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Smartphone app (
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While we wait for the industry to consolidate, we will have to contend with wildly disparate operating systems of varying quality and phone apps that might not live of to their makers’ claims. It is a maze to navigate, so we suggest carefully considering your options and reading many reviews before deciding which is best for you.