how to build or buy the best apps for smarter, safer, more adventurous travel

Tourism Apps on the Road: Baby, You Can Drive My Car

“Yes, I’m gonna be a star.”

Or so think the car companies.

They have held a vice-like grip on the dashboard since the horseless carriage was invented, and for good reason: car manufacturers are committed to safety, and as most of us now know, a mobile device in the car, even one embedded in the dashboard, can be a major distraction that causes accidents.

At any given daylight moment across the United States, approximately 660,000 drivers are using handheld mobile devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010. In 2016, it is estimated that 70% of all car accidents are caused by distracted driving, a subject I wrote about at length in Telematics Update magazine a few years ago (A worthy read. I mean, how can you pass up an article with the opening sentence, “It all began with cheese.”) Until car manufacturers figure out how to supply software based services in the vehicle equal or superior to those offered by a smartphone, people will continue to use their phones in the car for such services, and all of us who drive are at risk of an accident. It’s a major problem.

Figuring out how to not distract drivers, while still supplying them with the kinds of services we have come to love on smartphones, is a major UI design challenge for car companies, and they have been trying (and mostly failing) for decades to get it right. Apparently they believed that the same people who bend metal and paint it can also write world-class software. Harumph! Only recently have many car manufacturers, with the exception of perhaps Ford and few others, thrown in the proverbial towel and turned to the masters of mobile, namely Apple and Google, to develop a car-friendly version of their platforms for a license.

This is good news for everybody. In the not too distant future, the same app you enjoy on your handheld mobile device will be available on your in-vehicle mobile device, and you will get a seamless service as you move between them. We already see this, in fact, with apps like Pandora. The critical difference will be that the in-vehicle version will not distract; a non-trivial undertaking.

The emergence of the vehicle as a target platform for apps is especially good news for the tourism industry, for it means your content will become easily available to a whole new community of users who are already driving around looking for things to do. Consider a scenario where the motorist is driving down the road with his in-vehicle mobile device “tuned in” to a “channel” of interest (say, “historical markers” or “wineries”). As he gets within a certain range (say, five miles) of related points of interest, the in-vehicle device plays an audio file for that point of interest over the car speakers, just like radio. The driver’s hands never leave the wheel, and his eyes never leave the road: the safest of all scenarios. That kind of app is like an audio billboard ~ a better way to convey the information found on those roadside historical plaques that contain fascinating stories, but that few ever read because it requires pulling off to the side of the road and well, reading.

In fact, apps like this already exist (HearPlanet is one) but have yet to go mainstream due to a lack of content properly indexed for the mobile device. Most tourism sites are still stuck in the web mentality. Which is why, on a recent trip, when I asked my iPhone to tell me where to find the closest Civil War tourism sites, it directed me to places in Louisiana. Considering I was in Virginia at the time, about a thousand miles from Louisiana, that was a bit of a problem. Even more sadly, at the time of my query, I was only a ten-minute drive from the Crater National Battlefield Park, one of the most famous of Civil War sites in the US. That park had clearly not properly geo-tagged their location, and so they are not being found by anyone looking for them on a mobile device, of any kind, via a “what’s nearby” type of query.

Don’t let this happen to you.

Therefore, the technical keys to the long-term success of your offerings are:

Responsive design: This means ensuring your website looks good on any kind of device, from big screen desktops to small screen smartwatches. If you do nothing else, at least be sure you do this one thing.

Geo-location: Assign a latitude and longitude to your content.

Indexing: Assign keywords and ABA indices to your content so apps can direct the right content and services to the right person at the right time.

If you want to put icing on the cake, then add transparency to the mix, which allows the crowd to vote on the quality of your content. At a minimum, don’t be afraid of inviting the crowd into your house, as your customers can become the most valuable co-designers on your team. They know what they like, and they will tell you if you give them the opportunity.

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