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iPhone App Unlocks, Starts Car

A California company today will announce an iPhone application and car receiver that will enable users to lock, unlock and remotely start their car with the phone rather than the car's key fob.

The Viper SmartStart is the latest example of automotive electronics functions migrating into Apple iPhone and other smartphones, including turn-by-turn directions or locating the closest gas station.

Such ideas are a challenge for automakers and aftermarket suppliers for whom advanced auto electronics have been highly profitable.

"The days of these dedicated products we could put in our cars is rapidly coming to an end unless those products evolve into something more integrated," says William Matthies, an auto electronics veteran who now heads market research firm Coyote Insight.

Some automakers are embracing such integration rather than fighting it. Ford's latest version of Sync, an in-car communications system developed with Microsoft, works with a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone to offer turn-by-turn directions. And Ford just announced partnerships with the University of Michigan and the University of Detroit Mercy to encourage students to devise new mobile applications.

"We recognized the trend," Ford spokesman Alan Hall says. "Sync will be able to leverage the power of your mobile device."

Other automakers rolled out new iPhone apps, as well. Some are practical, such as BMW Mini's free app letting owners call a tow truck with the push of a button. The Mini Road Assist was developed by Allstate Roadside Services to let Mini owners summon services such as a battery boost or tire change. Others are just fun, such as an app from Toyota Scion that lets would-be DJs time the precise speed of a song by tapping the phone to the beat.

Aftermarket suppliers are getting involved, too. Pioneer Electronics just unveiled its first iPhone app for owners of its in-dash navigation and media units. Drivers can enter addresses on the phone, then transfer the information to the nav system for voice and on-screen guidance.

The SmartStart remote-start and lock app lets the owner be really remote. Mike Simmons, executive vice president of Directed Electronics, the parent of the maker, has demonstrated starting his car in California using an iPhone in Kansas City.

The system - which works on any car with electric windows and locks, but does not require an existing remote start feature - includes a receiver that is installed in the car. It's going on sale at Best Buy stores for $499.

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