Ford embraces bring-your-navigation with new smartphone app

Ford(s f) is offering up a way to put vehicle navigation into your car on the cheap. Instead of getting an expensive onboard nav system factory installed and paying an expensive monthly subscription fee, Ford drivers can access the company’s turn-by-turn navigation available over its Sync AppLink platform. Like its archrival General Motors(s gm), Ford has seen the connected car future, and it lies in the smartphone.

On Monday, Ford’s navigation technology provider TeleNav(s tnav) announced an Android version of its Scout navigation app to complement its already launched iPhone mapping app. The Google Play version works just like the iPhone version, with one exception: if you own an AppLink equipped car the app will automatically connect to your vehicle, turning your dash into scale-downed version vehicle navigation system. So far, the app only works on Verizon(s vz)(s vod), AT&T(s t) and Sprint(s goog) Android phones, but TeleNav said it would support T-Mobile users shortly.

You won’t get all of the bells whistles of a dedicated nav system. There is no big interactive map or 3D renderings of the your route. But AppLink’s more limited screen will display individual route instructions and give you voice prompts. The app also taps into Sync’s voice command system so you can access all of the preset destinations in your phone and uses the device’s data connection to search for addresses or points of interest. You can tell the app to take you home or to look for fast food or gas stations.

It’s the first time that Ford has integrated on-board navigation directly with a smartphone – so far it’s focused primarily on entertainment “radio” apps. And in the process it’s showing its willingness to rethink how it sells services in the vehicle. To activate Scout’s Car Connect feature you have to pay $25 a year annual subscription (or $5 a month if you go month-by-month), but that’s peanuts compared to what Ford could get by selling car buyers expensive embedded nav systems and their accompanying subscriptions.

What’s more the strategy allows Ford to bring navigation to much broader array of vehicles, as Sync AppLink percolates down to all makes and models. The app runs off the smartphone and uses Sync’s dash controls merely as an interface, so Ford doesn’t have to make a big investments in hardware to support it.

Ford Connected Services and Solutions Chief Technologist John Ellis will be at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference this week, discussing just how Ford is reinventing itself as an application platform on wheels. It’s not only Ford that that’s treading into the unknown turf of applications. All of the automakers are wrestling with same questions of how open their connected cars should be to third party development and what services they should control.

Chevrolet(s gm) has set out on a similar course to Ford and has potentially more at risk. It’s introducing a new smartphone nav app in the fourth quarter called BringGo to its MyLink connected car platform, which will bring an even richer in-vehicle experience to new Spark and Sonic models, which could cannibalize revenues from Chevy’s OnStar navigation services. Unlike Sync AppLink, Chevy’s latest version of MyLink has a seven-inch color touch screen, and Chevy is taking advantage of it. Not only will BringGo display maps directly on that screen, customers can use the touch screen interface to interact with the app.

Ford hasn’t gone that far yet, but it easily could. It’s higher-end connected car system MyFord Touch features all of the necessary hardware to recreate the full embedded navigation experience in its pricier vehicles. Ford has made embedded navigation standard its in all MyFord Touch package, but since TeleNav builds that nav system it could easily integrate its smartphone apps with the on-board platform.