Saturday, October 1, 2022

The Next Big Battle Is for the Soul of Your Car

A few years from now, in addition to deciding your next vehicle’s make and model, you may have another tough choice: the Google model or the Apple one?

The Wall Street Journal reports cars, especially electric ones, are becoming something like smartphones on wheels, some of the dynamics that played out in the early days of the mobile industry are playing out in the auto industry. Competition between the two kingpins of the smartphone industry has in the past couple of years gained new momentum, with Google racking up auto-maker partnerships for the automobile-based version of its Android operating system, and Apple teasing plans to expand its software capabilities in the car.

Software increasingly controls most aspects of our cars, from driver-assist systems maintaining the vehicle’s speed and heading on the highway to the code and computers that assure the car comes to a stop when we step on the brakes—or the car does the braking for us.

But the auto-operating system competition so far centers on the infotainment system that shows everything from maps to movies on the road.

Google and Apple both have systems—called Android Auto and CarPlay—that mirror phone apps on vehicles’ displays.

WSJ Graphic
Google has gone further. In 2017, it announced Android Automotive. Its system replaces the often less-than-great customized software that car makers have in the past put on their vehicles’ infotainment systems. For example, Ford’s widely derided Sync infotainment system started as a partnership with Microsoft, until Ford switched to BlackBerry’s QNX unit in 2014. Last year, Ford announced it would be switching infotainment-software providers again, this time to Google’s Android Automotive, starting with cars sold next year. In 2020, the first vehicle running Android Automotive went on sale in the U.S.—the Polestar 2, from Volvo’s electric-vehicle unit.

To date, Google has announced partnerships with nearly a dozen auto makers and auto-parts suppliers, including Stellantis, Honda, BMW, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi and General Motors’ GMC and Chevrolet brands. Other auto makers have announced they are using Android Automotive, which is open source, without entering partnerships with Google.

What auto makers get out of using Android Automotive is a ready-made operating system for their cars maintained by a company with the resources to continually update that software, taking care of small but important details like staying current with new wireless standards. And what Google gets out of this arrangement is that it makes it easier for the company to offer its services on a wide variety of vehicles.

This also means more people using Google’s services, like Maps or its Assistant. Nearly everyone who buys one of the hundreds of millions of vehicles that are slated to run Android Automotive will, from the perspective of its user interface and the apps that can run on it, be buying an Android smartphone with wheels.

Apple isn’t standing still

The software transformation of cars is still in its early days, and it’s hard to predict how it will play out. But one possible outcome is that many auto makers will end up offering cars with infotainment systems built by Google or Apple that have little modification by the auto maker, says Kersten Heineke, a Germany-based partner at McKinsey who consults with automotive clients.

Apple hasn’t announced an equivalent of Android Automotive—that is, software that auto makers can license to run on their vehicles, whether or not an iPhone is connected to them. And as with all its future plans, the company is very guarded about what it says publicly.

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