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After conquering smartphones, Google positions Android for automobiles

By Brian S Hall / January 10, 2014

After conquering smartphones, Google positions Android for automobiles

The Android operating system commands an astounding 81% of the smartphone market, but that hasn’t slowed down Google’s ambition. During this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Google announced the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), a market-gaining initiative to bring the full capabilities of Android to Audi, GM, Honda and Hyundai automobiles.

When can we expect to see that little green droid on our dashboards? As soon as possible. According to Google’s official statement, “Timing from each automaker will vary, but you can expect to see the first cars with Android integration by the end of this year.” This effort is about far more than simply syncing your smartphone to the car via Bluetooth. Google wants to provide drivers and passengers with access to real-time traffic data, maps, entertainment content, web services and more, all available via voice or touch and all fully integrated with the vehicle’s computing and controls.

If their foray into cars is anything like their entrance into the search engine market, Google’s efforts could profoundly remake the auto industry, reconfigure car design, change how we feel about our daily commutes and alter where and when we get our news and entertainment. Though Apple did jump out to an early lead with last year’s iOS in the Car launch, I suspect Google has the inside track. The company’s potent mix of personalized location-based data services, combined with Android’s global ecosystem of partners, developers and electronics manufacturers, will likely prove too enticing for automakers to pass up.

The connected car

While wearables currently occupy most of the CES press focus, the integration of mobile hardware, software and web services into automobiles may have a more widespread and lasting impact on our lives. Cars are quickly becoming fast-moving nodes that suck in and churn out countless bits of data. Though Google’s efforts to bring Android to our cars is potentially revolutionary, it is also the next logical step in a rather obvious progression born from the rapid spread of the smartphone.

There are already well over a billion smartphones in use across the globe. This number is expected to surpass 3 billion by 2016. Smartphones are fundamentally reshaping how, where and when we access information, connect with friends and colleagues, read a book, watch a movie, play games and learn what is taking place inside our appliances and around the world. We don’t want this continuous stream of information to vanish once we get inside a car, even though our eyes must remain fixed on the road and our hands firmly on the steering wheel. Google’s Patrick Brady, director of Android engineering, seems to agree:

In this multi-screen world, switching between our different devices should be easy and seamless. Common platforms allow for one connected experience across our phone, tablet and PC, so we get the right information at the right time, no matter what device we’re using. But there’s still an important device that isn’t yet connected as seamlessly to the other screens in our lives — the car.

Obstacles ahead

Google may be embarking on a road trip towards total mobile domination, but they won’t reach their final destination without overcoming technical issues, regulations, safety concerns and other speed bumps along the way. Perhaps the greatest obstacle, however, is Apple’s rather similar aspirations.

Apple put their first stake in the ground when they announced iOS in the Car at last year’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), and they’ve been fast at work ever since. Beginning this year, drivers will be able to activate Apple’s Siri service directly from the steering wheel or dashboard of participating vehicles. With the push of a button, Siri will have the power to read incoming emails and iMessages and allow drivers to dictate and send their reply without ever reaching for their phone.

Apple also intends to make its Maps service, iTunes Radio and other applications fully accessible to the driver via voice command. As we highlighted previously in The Push:

The new 2014 Honda Civic incorporates elements of Apple’s iOS in the Car, with content and applications pulled directly from the driver’s iPhone; simply touch the connected display to call up Pandora, your contacts or today’s news and entertainment. In addition, the Civic’s display will integrate seamlessly with Siri, making it easier to find directions on the fly or send a hands-free text.

Apple may be calling their automotive offering iOS in the Car, but that’s not entirely true. Although users will have direct access to Siri and other software from their driver seat, Apple’s marketing team revealed that the emphasis remains on the iDevice itself:

iOS in the Car seamlessly integrates your iOS device — and the iOS experience — with your in-dash system. If your vehicle is equipped with iOS in the Car, you can connect your iPhone 5 or later and interact with it using the car’s built-in display and controls or Siri Eyes Free. Now you can easily and safely make phone calls, access your music, send and receive messages, get directions and more. It’s all designed to let iPhone focus on what you need, so you can focus on the road.

iOS in the Car

This is where a clear fork in the road forms between Google and Apple. For iOS in the Car to work, you have to own a compatible Apple device. Google’s new automotive alliance is based on literally putting the Android operating system inside the participating vehicles, offering a greater number of opportunities for design and implementation across all automakers, as well as a much larger user base.

Big market, big future

The unique advantages of Android are likely to better translate to the automotive industry than the benefits of Apple’s tightly controlled platform. Android is by far the most dominant global mobile operating system, thanks to their (mostly) open-source Linux-based platform. By not depending on a single company’s hardware, Google should be able to spur development of all sorts of auto-optimized apps and services. As Businessweek recently remarked:

The electronics and computing supply chain throughout Asia, Europe and the U.S. tends to test and tune new components first for Android, providing intense interest and deep expertise around the software. For the automakers, this could translate into access to newer, better technology and lower costs for testing equipment. App makers are also used to creating software for Android.  

That said, this market is likely to support numerous entrants, both large and small. There are around 80 million new vehicles sold globally every year. As cars add more computing capacity, and 4G-services inside cars begin supporting Wi-Fi and streaming, this is set to become the next great battlefield in the mobile device war.

Get a thorough overview of the car industry’s future in our Automotive Trend Report.