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BMW’s new Connected+ app is part of its effort to transform itself into something more closely resembling a software company than an auto maker.

It's not sci-fi any more: Auto makers are building a future where cars can be controlled remotely, and their list of features can grow years after they leave the lot

Controlling your car via a smartphone app seems like science-fiction, but it's quickly becoming reality as auto makers rush toward offering increasingly tech-savvy drivers a bevy of new, continually updating capabilities.

Luxury manufacturers including BMW, Audi and Mercedes already have apps that allow drivers to remotely lock and unlock their cars and control heating and air conditioning. But as the race to offer even more connected features heats up, it's only a matter of time before most cars on the market have an assortment of remote-control functions.

"The capability is there and I don't think it's going to be that far," says Michael Ramsey, connected cars analyst for research firm Gartner.

BMW, for one, is charging hard toward remote-control functions. The Munich-based company's new Connected+ app, recently previewed for press, will allow drivers to look up routes on their phones and send them directly to their car's navigation system, share live trip status and location with contacts and remotely see what's going on around their vehicle.

With the Connected+ app, drivers can share live trip status and location with contacts.

The trip-status sharing feature can show friends or family members exactly where a driver is via a private website and provides continually updating arrival-time estimates. The remote monitoring ability, meanwhile, uses the car's cameras to build a three-dimensional view of the car's surroundings. The real-time image can then be viewed remotely on a smartphone.

The app can also provide drivers with walking directions to their destinations once they leave their vehicle and automatically add nearby gas stations to navigational routes if it detects that the car is running low.

The Connected+ app will work with cars in production as of this month and will be compatible later this year with older vehicles using versions five or six of BMW's iDrive computer system.

BMW plans to launch Connected+ in 19 countries, starting with the United States, but Canadian drivers will have to wait till the middle of next year to get it. The car maker says this is because Canada was one of the first markets in which it added wireless connectivity via its ConnectedDrive system back in the early 2000s. The backend software is therefore an older version that needs to updated.

"Currently we are in the process of migrating away from our local systems to … [a] central platform," says Shawn Stephens, national manager of strategy, planning, services, retail program at BMW Group Canada. "Once this is complete, it will open up the possibility of new features and functionality related to ConnectedDrive for the Canadian market."

The new capabilities are part of BMW's effort to transform itself into something more closely resembling a software company than an auto maker. Executives say the company is shifting away from the industry's traditional model, where cars have taken years to design and then aren't updated once they're finished.

BMW’s Connected+ system will be available in Canada in the middle of next year.

"The thinking has been that when the car leaves the factory it's done," says Dieter May, BMW's senior vice-president of digital services and business models. "No, that's when it starts to live."

To that end, BMW has invested in building back-end cloud infrastructure that allows it to crunch data such as weather and traffic information, which can then be pushed to vehicles and smartphones in the form of new capabilities.

Some features the company is currently working on, for example, include adding weather-delay data to driving-time predictions and pricing information to gas-station suggestions.

BMW's chief competitors, Audi and Mercedez-Benz, have similar apps – MMI Connect and Mercedes me, respectively – that allow drivers to remotely access and precondition their vehicles. Industry analysts expect both car makers are also working on adding additional features, a trend that is being fuelled by growing expectations from consumers for continually updating products.

The trend began with smartphones and mobile apps, but became popular with Tesla owners when the electric-car manufacturer started offering over-the-air software updates. Other car makers are now seeing that such updates can significantly raise customer-satisfaction levels.

"You get this sense that they are dedicated to giving you an experience platform and not just this list of things that you get when you buy the car," Mr. Ramsay says. "Now, when you buy it, that list may be ever-growing."

Connected features aren't just for luxury cars, either. General Motors is adding capabilities in a number of its entry-level models through its OnStar system, while Shanghai-based SAIC Motor Corp. – China's largest auto maker – last year unveiled an "internet car" packed with a number of remote-control functions.

The writer was a guest of BMW. Content was not subject to approval.

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