Why Google's Android Could Rule Connected Cars

The recent linking of General Motors (s GM) and Google (s GOOG) for a handful of services related to the plug-in Chevy Volt marks an intersection for automakers and Internet giants. The two industries — one little changed for centuries decades and marked by steel and manufacturing, the other constantly morphing over the past decade and ruled by chips and algorithms — will come together more and more as “connected” cars begin to offer a new platform for development, innovation and revenue.

GM’s latest plan to work with Google Android phones for a next-gen mobile app for the Chevy Volt (offering services like location-based services in addition to scheduling battery charge times) is an important step for GM to adapt its in-vehicle communication system to the specific needs of electric vehicle drivers. At the same time, Android, Google’s open operating system for mobile phones, could eventually take on a much larger role in connected vehicles — a topic we’ve delved into for a new research note over on GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

Android has already made some headway in automotive applications. Last year, auto supplier Continental AG announced plans to build a new hardware and software system called AutoLinQ that’ based on Android, aiming to begin demonstrating apps to automotive customers in the second half of 2010. Chinese automaker SAIC has also debuted a car called the Roewe 350 that includes an infotainment system built on version 2.1 of the Android OS.

According to the research firm iSuppli, while many concepts have emerged for bringing apps into the car, Android is the “most intriguing” because it allows automakers to easily create a custom interface and accesses a massive community of open-source developers and a ready supply of apps built for Android phones.

Being open source means vendors can access the Android source code freely and add proprietary extensions — something that could hold appeal to automakers looking to maximize both control and upgradability of operating systems for next-gen vehicles. With electric cars, the ability to upgrade as data comes in about battery, vehicle and device performance in real-world settings, and as new devices become available, will be a key element to keeping early adopters happy and delivering enough value to win over a broader swath of the market.

Still, automakers have a number of alternatives to Android for their next generation of vehicle communication systems. A source involved with the GM-Android project has told us some contenders include not only Android but also Microsoft (s MSFT), QNX Software Systems or some type of “homegrown” solution. The GigaOM Pro research note goes into more detail about what these various alternatives offer.

For alternative options beyond Google, some of the key points include Microsoft’s track record and experience with Ford (s F), having developed the Sync system and recently moved more into the EV space to tackle smart charging for Ford electric vehicles using the home energy management tool Microsoft Hohm (both Ford and Microsoft have said they hope other automakers will sign on with Hohm).

QNX, meanwhile, already provides some of the tech for GM’s OnStar, including a real-time operating system. It was acquired last month by Research in Motion (s RIMM) as part of larger plans to expand QNX’s position in the automotive market, and to integrate smartphones (like RIM’s BlackBerry) with in-vehicle audio and infotainment systems. As for a homegrown solution, the bet seems to be that a proprietary vehicle communication system, app store, platform and packaging of supporting technologies for connected cars will deliver a competitive edge in the next-gen vehicle market.

For more about this trend and what it means for the electric car ecosystem, check out the full research note and other related research on GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Why Google Android’s Electric Vehicle Deal With GM Matters

Why Microsoft’s Electric Vehicle Deal With Ford Matters

IT Opportunities in Electric Vehicle Management

Image courtesy of Diarmuid Miklos’ photostream.