With each new model of car on the streets, more automakers are assuming that people want their phones and their cars to be interconnected. It seems like Apple already cast a spell over the auto industry, since iPhone and iPod integration are a major, almost standard, selling feature on a lot of new and recently introduced cars. Naturally, Apple's competitors aren't too happy about the situation, because if such features are commonplace, it implies that Apple's technology is the standard for smartphones and tablets, whether or not consumers and statistics agree. In other words, your new car is all set up to communicate with the Apple devices that the auto manufacturer assumes most people have, and it doesn't really matter whether or not such an assumption is correct. Google doesn't like it because Google owns Android, Apple's main competition in the mobile device market, and accepting that iPhones deserve an automatic spot in most (if not all) new cars means accepting and conceding that Android phones do not. Why should Apple compatibility be the default and leave all the Android users out in the cold? And what can be done about it? Two good questions, really, and finding these answers is exactly why the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA) was established.
The OAA is, according to Google, "a global alliance of technology and auto industry leaders committed to bringing the Android platform to cars starting in 2014." Although Google doesn't specifically frame the situation as a matter of competition or conflict, or even address its rivals by name, it's clear that gaining market share would be a benefit of the OAA's success. This means that even if Apple has a lead on vehicle integration, Google and Android are planning to fight back, and they already have a group of auto manufacturers who want to use their innovations in new car models. The first members to join Google in the OAA were auto manufacturers Audi, General Motors, Honda and Hyundai, and the computer chip maker NVIDIA. But the battle isn't entirely about wireless devices anymore. Google isn't content with simply syncing smartphones -- the company wants to get its technology much deeper into the car.
Why do we need smartphone integration, anyway?
In the Open Automotive Alliance's introductory press release, the group refers to the Android platform as an "ecosystem," not just once, but several times. This choice of phrase reveals a little about how they're thinking: Android is not just for phones and tablets anymore. The car, they say, is truly a "mobile device," which is the next logical step to show how everything that runs on Android is part of the same system and is designed to work together.
Though smartphone integration is the most visible problem for Google and the Open Automotive Alliance, the group has other goals. Google wants automakers to think about using Android-based software to power vehicle infotainment systems -- the computers that control a car's numerous audio options, smartphone syncing, navigation systems, automatic climate controls, rear-seat DVD players and whatever else car designers come up with. The latest generation of these systems, which still feel like a pretty new revelation with their touch screens, split-screen features and a variety of available apps, are already in danger of becoming obsolete [source: Vance]. That's because smartphones have improved so much in the last few years that hopping into a car and quickly syncing up a smartphone provides most of the features offered by these cars' built-in systems. Need navigation for your trip? No problem. It's a free or inexpensive app on smartphones; however, navigation is a feature that can sometimes cost thousands of dollars to be built into a new car. Prefer Pandora radio to your car's CD player? Sure, it's right there on the phone. But all of this is bad news for auto manufacturers. They like that these (and similar) systems are high-cost add-ons -- options like those are usually a reliable source of profit on a new car purchase. Offering a feature-rich, yet elegant, interface can provide a much-needed edge over a competitor's model.
To succeed, Google must make some convincing arguments to win over a lot of auto manufacturers:
- Android is easy to customize to their specific needs
- It will be reliable enough to handle new car features that haven't even been implemented yet
- Advertising an Android-based center console will be appealing to a lot of new car buyers
Success here will gain a big advantage over Apple and other competitors, increasing the likelihood that whatever new car someone chooses, the car itself will be dependent on a version of the smartphone software that Google is trying to get into more peoples' hands.
Last June, Apple announced its own mobile integration partnership, called iOS in the Car, designed to get Apple's iOS operating platform into as many vehicles as possible. Apple has commitments from a much larger group of automakers, including Honda and Hyundai. It's unclear how Honda and Hyundai's dual allegiance will play out. And, on a related note, there are a lot of rumors swirling about Apple and Tesla, ranging from the likelihood that Apple might develop software for Tesla's 17-inch touch screen center console, to the possibility that Apple might actually be interested in acquiring the automaker. If that eventually happens, it could lead to some interesting new challenges for Google.
So, why the Android ecosystem?
Perhaps the reason Apple and Android have both managed to maintain significant market share with their handheld devices is because they have different approaches, with different appeal. One of the biggest differences between Apple and Android products is that Apple designs and makes its own hardware, because the company wants to control every aspect of the user experience. This is attractive to people who want uniformity in their phones, tablets, computers and music players. Google, on the other hand, hasn't expressed interest in becoming an actual manufacturer of the devices, instead preferring to continually tweak and improve the backbone necessary for the device to run, which is then implemented on phones and tablets made by a variety of other manufacturers. This approach appeals to people who want more control and choice over their own phones -- or to those who find Apple's control-freak personality stifling.
The Open Handset Alliance was established in 2007 to help Google's partners collaborate on these goals (as they applied to smartphones) which helped propel the Android platform to its current status. Google hopes the Open Automotive Alliance will have the same success. If the alliance does succeed, this will be a new use for the Android platform; however, the automakers aren't necessarily starting from scratch -- based on Google's proven track record, car designers can be reasonably confident that Android will provide the safe and reliable technology that's necessary for a passenger vehicle.
Right now, cars' infotainment systems are all over the place. Some car manufacturers use Linux-based or BlackBerry-based operating systems. Others collaborate with computer companies for custom branded systems -- Ford's partnership with Microsoft for the MyFord Touch interface is a notable example. This is frustrating for companies who develop apps for these cars, because they have to be customized for each brand. The Genivi Alliance, formed in 2009, made attempts to integrate into cars using the Linux open source operating system. That alliance was backed mainly by BMW, General Motors and Intel. Though Android is based on Linux, Android has specific advantages because it's been proven to be adaptable to lots of devices made by a bunch of different manufacturers, and it's familiar to technology companies around the world, too. Since app developers are already intimate with Android, it'll cost automakers less to code and troubleshoot on a familiar platform. Also, some auto manufacturers, such as Toyota, Audi, BMW and Kia, already use Google to manage navigation, maps and other electronic features in their cars.
Google hopes that better integration will be safer for drivers and their passengers. A common platform, the alliance says, will improve safety because it'll be easier to use. There will be less of a learning curve between cars, and people will be more likely to actually use features like wireless and hands-free integration if the system is intuitive. Using Android to run some of the car's electronic features will basically turn the car itself into an Android device (or "ecosystem," if you prefer), reaching new customers and reinforcing the platform's importance with existing customers. When the technology is implemented, it'll be found in literally hundreds of millions of new cars [source: Vance]. In fact, we should begin to see Android-integrated cars by the end of this year.
This all points to the evolution of the car as a computer. We're heading in a direction in which a car's center console will be able to do a lot of the same things a computer or tablet can currently do. Yes, cars are already computer-driven, and have been for a long time. Computers control everything from mechanical functions, like engine timing, to comfort functions, like climate control. But that's quite different from the notion that a car itself should be able to, say, stream music videos, or search for recipes on Pinterest to compile and sync a grocery list. Clearly, though, plenty of car manufacturers and technology companies -- and certainly the OAA -- are preparing for that time to come.
Author's Note: How the Open Automotive Alliance Works
Not long before this story was assigned, Google bought Nest, the company that makes smart thermostats and smoke alarms. It was more than a wise investment in a company that makes innovative and desirable products. As we know from Google's relationship with smartphones, they don't really want to make devices. But they do want to control the way people interact with the devices, and study the way the data flows around. (That's not unique to Google, of course. I'm still too creeped out to activate the thumbprint security feature on my iPhone 5S.) Getting Android in cars, I suspect, is about more than making Android a bigger part of consumers' lives. We spend so much time in our cars -- it's reasonable to think that Google wants to know what we do with that time ... and offer Google-optimized ways to use it.
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