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General Motors sparks Siri integration into small cars

Siri with Chevrolet's MyLink infotainment system. (General Motors)

Siri, Apple's virtual assistant, will integrate with Chevrolet's MyLink infotainment system in early 2013. (General Motors)

Let's face it, cars have been trotting along behind our phones for awhile now. When we get in the driver’s seat, we travel back in time a few years. But General Motors is bent on closing the gap.

This past November, GM announced that Siri, Apple's heavily touted (if questionably functional) virtual assistant, will integrate with Chevrolet's MyLink infotainment system in its Sonic and Spark vehicles in early 2013. The cars, which start at under $14,000, pair a passive voice-recognition system with Siri's phone, texting, calendar and question-and-answer features. Scott Fosgard, Communications Director at GM, told BBC Autos, "We assume buyers who come into a Spark already have a smartphone and that their smartphones are priceless to them."

Drivers can connect only their iPhone 4S and 5 to the Chevrolet MyLink system via Bluetooth and use a voice command button on the steering wheel to activate Siri. Fosgard said GM and Apple worked together to align the systems. Some features of the Siri and GM venture may not be revolutionary – we have seen hands-free calling and texting features before – but GM's MyLink system allows Siri to add appointments to your calendar, play songs from your iTunes library and even answer simple questions like the dates of national holidays.

But Fosgard said if you ask a question that requires a webpage to load to retrieve an answer, Siri will respond with, "Sorry (insert your name here), to ensure your safety, your vehicle won't let me help you with that right now." This is part of Apple's "eyes-free" concept, first introduced at its Worldwide Developers Conference back in June by former VP of iOS software, Scott Forstall. GM's take on eyes-free means the iPhone screen will never light up when paired with the MyLink system.

Fosgard related a story to BBC Autos about accidently swiping his 22-year-old son's smartphone on his way to work. "He wanted to drive two hours just to pick it up", he said. His son is in the same age demographic as potential Spark and Sonic customers. GM found 90% of its Spark and Sonic customers use smartphones, and 70% of all their customers want some sort of smartphone connectivity.

GM's decision to integrate Apple's iOS, as opposed to adding an Android feature, may be a judicious move by the company. A 2011 report by Forrester Research showed that of adults between 18 and 31 years of age with smartphones, about 50% were using Apple's iOS. GM is making it simple for this group to pair their phones to its cars. Fosgard said the Siri integration is part of a more robust effort by the automaker to integrate wired features cleanly into its vehicles. "It's not just enough to have the real cool tech, but to do it in a way that's intuitive, and a pleasant experience."