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Google is coming for our cars.
At I/O, Google revealed the car was another gadget on the long list of new devices in which the company is planting the Android flag. It’s easy to get the impression that the car is about to swallowed up in the mobile OS wars, just like the smartphone and tablet, the wearable and TV set-top streaming box.
But Android Auto is a little different from the Android handset, slate or watch. We’re not going to see Google take over the dashboard in your vehicle like it would another device. I’m certainly not taking away from the significance of Google moving into the vehicle. The world’s most widespread development platform, along with Google’s Maps and Search technologies, will start appearing in car dashboards starting this year. The implications of this are huge for the automotive world.
But I think we need to clear up some possible misconceptions about what Android Auto means for the auto industry, the tech sector and the driving consumer.
We’re not going to see Android cars pitted against Apple cars on the open road. Furthermore, the automakers aren’t throwing up their hands and ceding the car infotainment market to Google. Car manufacturers are going to keep making their own connected infotainment systems, keep running their own developer programs and keep embedding 3G and 4G connectivity in their vehicles.
There’s a lot of room in the dashboard, and we’re going to see multiple options for apps and connectivity in the same vehicle. Android Auto is going to share space with Apple’s CarPlay and other OS-agnostic interfaces like MirrorLink as well at the automakers own app platforms and telematics services.
“I can’t imagine as this plays out in the future that you will have to choose between owning an iPhone to use one type of car or an Android to use another type,” said Danny Shapiro, Nvidia’s(s nvda) senior director of automotive.
And Shapiro would know. Nvidia is working with many automakers, including Audi, BMW, Tesla(s tsla) and Porsche, to embed its app processers and GPUs into their vehicles. Nvidia is also a founding member of Google’s Open Automotive Alliance and has worked on many of the early Android Auto integration projects.
Exhibit A: The Audi A3
Audi’s implementation of Android Auto is a good example of what we’re likely to see in the near future, Shapiro said. Google isn’t developing the underlying operating system for Audi’s new MMI connected car platform. In fact, the OS is being supplied by BlackBerry’s(s bbry) QNX division. On top of that, e.solutions — a venture between Elekrobit and the Volkswagen Group — has developed its own middleware, user interface, APIs and infotainment apps that ride on top of QNX.
Android Auto will be an application framework that runs over MMI. You can almost think of Google as a favored member in Audi’s developer platform. It’s tapping into MMI’s display, command and control, and voice command APIs. The result is the Android interface projected onto the screen and emulated across the Audi’s touchpad and various mechanical controls (MMI doesn’t use a touchscreen).
The way Audi has implemented Android Auto, you can actually use MMI’s turn-by-turn navigation system (which coincidentally draws map data separately from Google Earth) while listening to Google Play Music or composing a text message on your phone using Android Auto’s voice commands. In the Audi A3, the first 4G car released in the U.S., the Android Auto apps would run on the phone and connect to the internet over its 3G or 4G connection, while the MMI apps would run inside the dash, connecting to the internet through an embedded radio linked to AT&T’s 4G network.
“Audi’s approach, I think, is a very elegant one,” Shapiro said. Android Auto is one element in a multielement system, he said, and each of those elements can either function independently or work in conjunction. Not every Android Auto partnership, though, will be that sophisticated.
Audi announced on Thursday that it has also joined Apple’s connected car program, and the automaker said CarPlay would show up in 2015 vehicles. Shapiro wouldn’t reveal any details about how CarPlay would be implemented in MMI or whether CarPlay and Android would occupy the same Audi dashboards, but he confirmed that Nvidia is working with several car companies on integrating both platforms into the same vehicles.
“There are definitely automakers developing car infotainment systems that will have both Android Auto and CarPlay,” Shapiro said.
We’re likely going to see scenarios where both CarPlay and Android Auto are running their software in the background, invisible to the driver. But when you plug in your phone with a USB cable or connect to Bluetooth, the car will automatically recognize it and then automatically bring either Apple or Google’s software to the forefront, Shapiro said.
And while there’s no guarantee that every new car next year will support both Android Auto or CarPlay — there are still some automakers that have joined one development group and not the other — that situation could be soon corrected with a simple software upgrade. There’s no hardware component to either platform except for the USB or wireless interface necessary to connect them, Shapiro said.
To only support one system would frankly be stupid. The automakers have no vested interest in picking sides. Why alienate half of your potential customers?
A new era of in-car app innovation
So the connected car isn’t going to be new front in the smartphone OS wars, and that’s a great thing for consumers. We’ll get to choose whether we want to opt for the navigation system, apps and mobile data plans offered by our car manufacturer or if we simply want to make our dashboards extensions of our smartphones.
And if we go the smartphone route, we won’t have to match our devices to the make and model of car we drive (I expect we’ll see Microsoft(s msft) launch a similar car connectivity platform soon). We could even choose to use a combination of services. I might want to use Android for Google Maps in my Chevy, but still use OnStar’s telematics system for remote start and unlock features and engine diagnostics.
But let’s face it: the auto industry has been painfully slow in delivering third-party apps to the vehicle. Programs like Android and Car Play will bring a much a richer app ecosystem to the vehicle because they’re building off of Google and Apple’s already widely popular developer platforms.
I’m sure Google and Apple will be much more restrictive on what apps make it into the dashboard and how they perform (no Netflix in the front seat) than they are with their smartphone platforms. But from a developer’s point of view that’s better than the alternative: joining dozens of different automaker developer programs and creating dozens of different versions or your app with no guarantee that they’ll every make their way into a car. No matter how restrictive Google and Apple will be, the auto industry is going to be far more conservative.
Though the automakers are opening up to Google and Apple, I suspect these relationships are going to be a growing source of tension between Detroit and Silicon Valley. Presented with a choice between a free Google Maps or Apple Maps and a $20 a month subscription to an automaker’s own nav system, I’m going to opt for the former. In my mind Google Maps is already a better turn-by-turn nav app than any vehicle embedded system.
So I give credit to the automakers for inviting Google and Apple onto their turf. In fact, this could mark a new strategic direction for the auto industry in which they use Apple and Google to connect cars they would typically leave unconnected.
Your luxury sedan might come with the automaker’s full infotainment and telematics system, but your $15,000 neon-green subcompact might just sport basic integration your Android or iPhone on a small screen. It’s the younger set that’s often buying cheaper cars, and it’s the younger set that accustomed to doing everything – and I mean everything – on their mobile devices.