This sponsored post is produced in conjunction with Ford.

The trend is obvious — most new cars come with large flat-screen displays embedded in dashboards, replacing CD drives, tape decks, and analog controls. Some cars have moved toggles to touchscreens, others have created their own GPS systems. But outside of proprietary creations by brand, carmakers are taking advantage of the cloud and its vibrant arc of entertainment offerings to make driving a richer experience than ever before.

There are several areas where the cloud is making a difference in cars. Music is the big one. Car radios have long been a centerpiece for drivers, making long treks and workaday commutes more bearable, but now there are far more choices. But the cloud is also revolutionizing in-car communications, and navigation.

Leveraging the cloud is a no-brainer for auto companies, who now don’t have to divert as many resources to developing their own infotainment systems. All they need to do is create a slick portal, like Ford SYNC Applink, to access mobile app content created by others, that will not only provide better user experiences, but be regularly updated for a system that never goes out of style.

Here’s a quick look at how the cloud is changing the way we interact with our vehicles, and what this might mean for the future of choice.

1) Music

This is by far the highest-profile application of cloud technologies in cars. And the most well-known example is Pandora. Many car stereos on the market, including after-market stereos, are Pandora enabled, allowing users to tap into the company’s deep library of music, based on your preferred songs, artists and genres. When people think of extending their music options beyond satellite radio, Pandora is usually the first thing they think of.

But Pandora is facing an increasingly crowded market. Spotify, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention because it provides free access to any music you want to listen to in the moment. You can build playlists and access radio channel features like Pandora’s. All of this music — literally hundreds of thousands of tracks — lives in the cloud so it’s not taking up hard drive space, and can be streamed any time.

Then there’s Slacker Radio, which some people say combines the best of Pandora and Spotify, enabling users to discover a song, listen to it on demand, and then explore more by the same artist or within the same category. Now Google and Apple are jumping into the mix too with their streaming music services, so the sky’s the limit on choice for in-vehicle audio.

2) Communications

Car phones used to be a big deal. You know, the kind with cords still attached. It’s hard to imagine now with bluetooth-supported in-dash calls via your cell phone. Now you can just speak like normal and have the caller’s voice projected out of the radio. But the cloud is taking communication while driving many steps further.

Voice command is the other big innovation that has allowed this to happen, given the emphasis on hands-free. Some vehicle infotainment systems now let you speak your texts and receive them on dashboard displays. And this is naturally translated into spoken tweets, Facebook posts, and more on internet-based communication platforms.

With geolocation become sharper every day, we’ll see more and more vehicles pinpointing the location of the people you are speaking to. Parents will be able to locate and keep tabs on their children, and more. All of these offerings will turn vehicles into a command center for communications.

3) Mapping and navigation

In-car navigation has gone through several iterations. Drivers were once depending on independent displays made by Garmin and TomTom to tell them where they were and how to get where they were going. Then carmakers themselves started baking in proprietary navigation systems into their dash displays. But this requires a lot of work, continual updates of data, and investment in upgrading technology continually.

All the while, web-based mapping services like Google Maps, can be tapped into directly. Not only does Google have more access to data, it is working to add features all the time, and create a better user experience. Giving drivers access to Google Maps also makes it possible to offer more interesting services like locating nearby restaurants, points of interest, gas stations, and more. This expands choice for drivers who used to have to rely on maps and guidebooks.

When it comes to what the cloud will do for cars, there truly is no limit. Whatever people come up with for the internet, could eventually be streamed to give drivers more options than ever before.

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