For many people, the largest smart gadget they own is not their phone or tablet—it’s the automobile sitting in their driveway. Cars have been able to connect to Android, iPhone and mobile Microsoft devices for years now—primarily via voice commands—to access apps aimed at communication and entertainment. The future points to apps that run on the cars themselves and are designed to benefit rather than distract drivers, according to a recent panel discussion at the Beyond the Connected Vehicle conference in Detroit.

Apps best suited for the car are those that facilitate navigation and monitor driver and passenger health—and do so while allowing drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road the entire time, said John Ellis, global technologist and head of the Ford Motor Co. Developer Program.

Automakers began integrating mobile devices with car controls in the mid-2000s, enabling motorists to operate MP3 players and phones using voice commands or buttons on the steering wheel or radio/navigation console. In 2011, Ford introduced AppLink, which enables drivers to run certain apps —including Pandora, Stitcher Radio and the OpenBeak tweet reader.

AppLink is an extension of the Sync technology Ford introduced with Microsoft at the 2007 International CES. Sync includes a flash memory-based system and lets motorists operate a number of popular digital devices, including MP3 players and mobile phones, using voice commands or buttons on the steering wheel or radio/navigation console. Reports in a number of news outlets Tuesday—including BloombergBusinessweek, USA Today and ExtremeTech—indicate that Ford is switching directions with Sync, dropping its deal with Microsoft in favor of working with BlackBerry's QNX automotive unit.

Other carmakers have also made strides to accommodate smart devices, including General Motors’ with MyLink and Toyota with Entune.

The next step will be integrating health-monitoring features into these multimedia systems. That would require additional sensors in the seats (including infant seats), steering wheel, dashboard and elsewhere that connect to apps running on mobile devices or the vehicles themselves. “We’re looking into how the car can be a proper receptor for wearable technology and the data they use,” Ellis said. “We in the auto industry are being challenged by the use of new technologies. We’re being asked questions that actually take us outside the car.”

In-car health apps have been in the works for years. Toyota began experimenting a few years ago with a system that monitors cardiovascular functions via the driver’s grip on the steering wheel, although that system remains a prototype. Ford itself has partnered with medical device maker Medtronic to develop an in-car continuous glucose meter that connects via Bluetooth and lets a driver or passengers hear alerts about their blood glucose readings while in transit.

The biggest difference between in-car apps and those used on mobile devices relates to the user’s surroundings. Most people don’t share their smartphones—it’s a very personal device, Jeff Klaumann, head of Samsung Apps U.S. for Samsung Electronics, said during the Beyond the Connected Vehicle panel he shared with Ellis. Yet, when you’re in the car with even one other person, the dynamic of mobile device use changes. You might not want other people in your car to hear information about your health, or for your car to blab out a reminder via it’s speakers to pick up a surprise gift for your spouse if he or she is sitting right next to you, he added.

Despite these challenges, people expect more integration between their vehicles and their increasingly indispensable smart gadgets. “We don’t want to break that personal relationship that drivers have with their phones,” Ellis said. Safely accommodating both is a work in progress, however, because “at the end of the day you’re [operating] a vehicle, and we can’t forget that.“