Think you’re locked into a mobile OS now? Wait until it runs your car

Apple’s going to reveal more about the Apple Watch on March 9, but CEO Tim Cook has already started dropping hints during a trip to Europe. The latest tidbit comes from The Telegraph: The Apple Watch will be able to start a car.

Which cars? That’s a good question that the Telegraph article and Cook didn’t address. It’s possible that Apple doesn’t know yet, and it hinges on deals with automakers who may be generally resistant to Apple or its rivals taking over in-car computing.

But for people who are considering purchasing new cars today, Apple getting into the key fob game could end up having a significant effect on your resale value. After all, if your car’s ignition only works with iOS — or has no smartphone integration at all — it’s going to be significantly less attractive to Android users who are considering buying your car secondhand. And if your mobile hardware not only powers features on your dashboard interface like mapping or music but basic automotive functions like starting the car then it only becomes more important for the vehicle’s valuation going forward.

A recent report from Glass’s — the British Kelley Blue Book — concurred. “If you are a car manufacturer that has chosen to go with Android, can you still sell your car to a committed Apple smartphone user?” head of valuations Rupert Pontin wrote. “Backing the wrong horse could see their models become not just less attractive to a growing group of buyers but also see their residual values hit.”

The two big players at the moment for in-car software from Silicon Valley are Google, with Android Auto, and [company]Apple[/company], with CarPlay, both of which will roll out on new cars this year. Neither company appears to be going anywhere, but it was possible to say something like that about BlackBerry in 2007 when my family purchased its most recent car.

Your car choice could end up having an even more powerful lock-in effect on your mobile platform choice than, say, an app store. After all, even if you’re a huge app user, you don’t usually spend thousands of dollars on apps that you expect to keep for years. And you can’t sell your old apps when you want to upgrade to new ones.

To be clear: It’s entirely possible — almost certain — than some of the entertainment systems rolling out this year will support both Android Auto and CarPlay. Car makers and chip companies like Nvidia have no incentive to lock drivers in to a brand they don’t make. But anyone who follows mobile app development knows that often new features and bug fixes don’t come to both platforms at the same time — and sometimes never make it to the third and fourth place platforms. For now, CarPlay and Android Auto manage maps and music in your car, but when features are as eventually as critical as keyless fob-free ignition — or one day, autopilot — you probably will want to have the phone or smartwatch that updates come to first.

It’s already possible to start a car with an iPhone. Hyundai, which is supporting both CarPlay and Android Auto, mused about NFC ignition two years ago. A firmware update pushed to the pricey electric Tesla Model S back in September enabled the feature, but the changelog, highlighting the issue, said that the feature was coming to Android “in a few weeks.” Unofficial developers have already started working on Tesla apps for Apple Watch. (There are also unofficial Android Wear apps.)

What’s clear is that as car development cycles inch closer to the more rapid and iterative software and hardware development processes favored by Silicon Valley firms, it’s going to wreak havoc on secondhand values. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that some electric cars — except for Teslas — have seen their resale values tumble.

Of course, if you believe the rumors, Apple might solve this problem for iPhone and future Apple Watch users when it releases the car it’s supposedly working on. But for anyone purchasing a new vehicle before 2020, that doesn’t help very much.