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Rolling Update: The automobile is the next great app platform

There’s no question information technology has invaded the automobile in a big way. Our once-state-of-the-art choices, as little as a decade ago, consisted of Bluetooth for our cell phones, a CD player, satellite radio for audio, and perhaps a rear-seat DVD playback system (here’s an example the current state of the art). Today our car infotainment systems may have cellular data connectivity, Wi-Fi hotspots for multiple devices, apps for various audio content sources, and apps to connect to navigation or otherwise enhance the “mobility experience.” We can thank the rapid evolution of the smartphone that has brought the underlying software and hardware technology to the mainstream, and also for stoking consumer demand to have the same connectivity choices in their cars as they have in their pockets.

But while the technology in the car is similar, it’s not quite the same. Auto infotainment systems must interface with a variety of proprietary and industry standard protocols that have existed for years. There are some basic software layers: operating systems (tailored for automobiles), auto specific middleware, HMI (Human Machine Interface) middleware, and layers you might expect for auto applications and the all-important integration with smartphones.

Part of this shows the increasing complexity of the modern infotainment system. The chart above doesn’t really account for the complex architecture of adding autonomous driving, safety, and infrastructure aware applications that are being developed. Automakers are rapidly ramping up their software skills as the importance of the in-car infotainment experience becomes clearer.

In a recent report by consulting firm PWC, 56% of new car buyers said they would switch to a different brand if the one they were considering didn’t offer the technology and features they wanted. Similarly, 48% of car buyers said they would walk away from a vehicle they liked if the technology was difficult to use. Clearly, connected applications and technology are becoming a much more important consideration in which vehicles consumers choose and buy. Infotainment systems are also figuring heavily into consumer perceptions of automotive quality. Ford’s well publicized problems with previous versions of Sync resulted in low ratings from Consumer Reports and JD Power quality surveys.

The encroachment of computing technology in infotainment came on the scene years before the iPhone and Android smartphone revolution. Microsoft’s original embedded automotive solutions based on Windows CE, and later embedded Windows XP, made headway in infotainment over 10 years ago. Perhaps the biggest win for Microsoft was in powering the original (and maligned) Ford Sync. Ford’s current Sync 3 is now based on QNX. QNX, now part of Blackberry, has long been in the embedded space, and reportedly commands over 50% of the infotainment OS market. Operating systems based on open source Linux make up the rest, and industry consortiums like Genivi aim to develop Linux-based software stacks to standardize parts of the infotainment platform to accelerate innovation.

It is the smartphone, its connectivity, and its wide range of application choices that is driving much of the innovation in infotainment systems today. Consumers want the same ease of use and choice of the smartphone in a way that is safe to use in cars. In that respect, automakers have responded by adopting smartphone interface technology in cars, sometimes with mixed results. Systems with touchscreens like Ford’s Sync and Cadillac’s Cue have been criticized for slow response and laggy input.

2016 Cadillac CT6, Los Angeles, CA

In some instances, where automakers sought to replace hard buttons with touchscreen interfaces, they discovered usability suffered and went back to redundant physical controls for oft-used features like climate and audio control. Pinch to zoom is great on a smartphone, but it requires far more concentration in a moving car than when you are using a smartphone (and hopefully not using said smartphone while you’re driving). Scrolling through menus using touch – even when the performance is acceptable – is still not a great experience while driving. Automakers have continued to innovate on HMI, with gesture control, handwriting recognition on touchpads, and enhanced voice control all vying to deliver a better in-car experience.

With the dominance of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, consumers are increasingly demanding the same familiar interface and app choices while they are moving. Automakers have responded by having their own miniature app ecosystems via partnerships with app developers and internet content services. Examples abound from all the automakers in recent years; Google search and maps integration for Audi and BMW systems, Garmin navigation and Yelp for Chrysler’s Uconnect system, Pandora streaming on a large number of automaker systems. Some rely on smartphone integration, and some have integrated connectivity (for example LTE on a variety of GM models) where apps can function on their own.

Apple and Google’s smartphone dominance have practically forced automakers to offer support for CarPlay and Android Auto. In many cases, neither system (at least today) delivers functionality that isn’t offered on existing infotainment systems. Load up CarPlay in a new car, for example, and you get Apple Maps, messages, music, Siri, and a handful of compatible apps like Pandora. All of these functions have already been offered (sans Siri, but sometimes offered via live concierge services like OnStar) in existing infotainment systems. It does offer a familiar, if dumbed-down and simplified — but easier to use — experience that requires almost no knowledge ramp.

Android Auto VW

The ultimate promise of CarPlay and Android Auto is to bring the rich app ecosystem of the smartphone platforms to the car. For automakers that didn’t originally employ touchscreen infotainment interfaces (notable German luxury brands like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes) they present a technical challenge to incorporate as well. The standardization of the infotainment interface can be a threat to automakers by taking away some of the differentiation in the in-car experience. On the other hand, it may be an opportunity as well. For example, automaker voice recognition/AI technology is no match for the sophistication of Apple’s Siri and Google Now/Assistant, or Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft Cortana for that matter. The opening up of these voice platforms will present new opportunities for automakers to offer applications that integrate the car (and its data) better with your personal information, likes, desires, home automation, and a host of other uses I’m not creative enough to foresee.

While apps may ultimately dominate the interface and experience, part of the business model for both the technology companies and the automakers may be who controls the data. As Google and Facebook have built huge and highly profitable businesses from the consumer data they collect, automobiles are and will continue to be great generators of valuable data. Apple’s secretive and much-rumored car project reportedly held discussions with Daimler and BMW that fell apart over control of the data from the car. The automakers are wary, not only of ceding some control of the experience to the technology companies, but also of giving up future business opportunities with all the data that will be collected.

The battle over the in-car interface will become more important as self driving capabilities become reality. When “driving becomes the distraction,” the ecosystem of apps and services become the mobility experience. The experience will not be about driving, but preparing for the activity ahead, learning more about where you’re going, or perhaps researching things of interest you otherwise might not have time for.

This is where the ecosystem companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have inherent advantages with important technology positions across widely used information and entertainment services. You can’t count out other providers – too many to list – like Facebook, AT&T, Verizon, and others that will want a stake in the system. Automakers will have their work cut out for them to maintain their brand identity and customer image in an increasingly information-centric mobility experience.

We’re doing a special Rolling Update series this week on emerging car tech; stay tuned for more in-depth coverage as the week goes on.

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