There are countless mobile apps that would come in handy in the car--Google Maps, Pandora, and Yelp come to mind. Unfortunately, because they are accessible only through your phone, most of them are dangerous to use while driving. You don't want to be checking the weather as you drive off a bridge. But soon a lot more apps could be driver friendly.

Several carmakers have begun adding mobile apps to their dashboards. But so far, only a handful of apps are available. That's because each carmaker has its own proprietary infotainment system: Ford has Sync; Chrysler has Uconnect; Audi has Audi Connect; Mercedes-Benz has mbrace2; Toyota has Entune; and General Motors has MyLink, IntelliLink, and Cue. So, getting one app into several brands of cars requires software companies to navigate multiple platforms.

Livio, a Ferndale, Michigan, company, has developed a software platform that could change all that by creating a universal system for in-vehicle apps. "There is huge fragmentation," says analyst Roger Lanctot, who follows automotive technology for Strategy Analytics, an international research firm headquartered in Newton, Massachusetts. "Consumers want the apps they are using every day on their phone to be brought into the car. Livio is potentially the simplest solution in the industry."

Here's how Livio's system works: First, you connect your phone to a Livio-enabled car stereo via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or USB. After the initial setup, you don't have to touch your phone at all. It stays in your pocket or your purse while you drive. As soon as your phone is in range and the car's audio system is turned on, the two automatically pair up and display your apps that are compatible with Livio. You can control them through the dashboard. And you can use your Livio-connected apps in other people's cars, too. The software will be compatible with iPhones, BlackBerrys, and Android phones.

Livio only recently entered the software business. Jake Sigal founded the company in 2008 to make audio equipment that could play streaming music from Pandora and Internet radio stations. Last year, when Livio debuted a gadget that beams music from mobile-phone apps to a car stereo, the company was inundated with requests to license the software. "We realized that the software was our secret sauce," says Sigal.

Livio plans to charge appmakers $1 for every customer who adds that company's particular app to his or her car, and audio-equipment manufacturers or automakers $1 for every app-enabled stereo. So far, the company has partnerships with a few appmakers and several audio-equipment manufacturers. Livio recently signed its first deal with a car manufacturer, the name of which Sigal is still keeping under wraps. He expects that cars equipped with Livio software will start hitting the market by 2014.

One potential challenge for Livio is ensuring driver safety. Sigal is the first to admit that not every mobile app belongs on your dashboard. The company is being careful to comply with federal and state laws designed to curb distracted driving. So far, Livio's content is limited to traffic and navigation apps, music apps, and National Public Radio.

A greater challenge may be persuading automakers to use the same technology as their competitors. "There is a natural hesitation for carmakers to share, because they have each invested millions in their proprietary technologies," says Sigal. "It's really important that Livio doesn't call their baby ugly. Their superpower is making cars. Ours is getting apps into cars. We don't want to be Batman; we just want to be Robin."


Some of the Apps That Will Work in Cars with Livio Software

RDIO: music streaming
NPR: news and interviews from National Public Radio
TuneIn: more than 50,000 radio stations from across the globe
Grooveshark: music streaming

Some of the Apps Already in Vehicles

OpenTable (Lexus): dinner reservations
Allergy Alert (Ford): pollen information
Yelp (Mercedes-Benz): restaurant reviews
Facebook (BMW): status updates (read by a computer)

A Few Apps We Hope to Never See on the Dashboard

Words With Friends
Angry Birds