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What Google's Foray Into Cars Means for the Automotive Industry

Google's reach into the car causes trepidation among insiders and consumers alike.

Rashevskyi Viacheslav/Shutterstock

Just like Apple’s iOS in the Car announcement, the details of Google’s announcement of the Open Automotive Alliance were sparse. According to the FAQ section of the OAA’s website, the alliance is “working with our partners to enable better integration between cars and Android devices in order to create a safer, car optimized experience. We’re also developing new Android platform features that will enable the car itself to become a connected Android device.” Based on this statement, it appears that there are two outcomes to consider.

The first is the possibility of Android phones connecting with vehicle head units. However, it is unclear whether these head units will be limited to Android units, which seems unlikely. The second scenario is Android running directly on the head unit itself.

Breaking down scenario No. 1

In the first scenario, it seems the OAA will address approaches to connecting phones with cars for “brought-in” style solutions, similar to what the Connected Car Consortium was doing with MirrorLink, a solution for connecting smartphones and a vehicle’s infotainment system. If this is the case, the CCC may be facing some repercussions. MirrorLink was not supported by Apple, and has also had limited support by the Android phone manufacturers. As such, it seems unlikely that the handset manufacturers would support MirrorLink alongside a Google-endorsed OAA solution. So, unless the CCC’s work is incorporated into the OAA, MirrorLink is at risk.

Additionally, it is unlikely that the OAA’s approach will be endorsed by Apple, which will remain focused on its own iOS in the Car initiative. This means that car manufacturers will likely have to work with two independent approaches if they wish to align with both Google and Apple. Not to mention working with other auto manufacturers, like Ford and GM, which are implementing their own smartphone connectivity solutions.

Breaking down scenario No. 2

Meanwhile, the second scenario, where Android would run directly on the head unit itself, suggests that Google is “getting behind” an automotive version of Android. Whether or how far Google will go with a car-specific version of Android is unknown at this point. Until now, there has not been an Android version specifically for automotive, and it was left to third parties to create the extensions necessary to make Android viable for the automotive environment. Several companies, such as Wind River and Parrot, have emerged with Android solutions for the car, but these companies may need to adjust their strategies in light of this announcement.

What’s more, Android has already built a growing presence in the head unit, and this announcement will only ensure further growth in the car. The Android ecosystem comes with thousands of apps and a huge developer support system, making it an attractive option to automotive manufacturers struggling to create their own app ecosystems. Consequently, the rise of Android in the car will put pressure on competing systems such as QNX and those based on Linux, such as Genivi.

2014 will be the year of the car for Apple and Google, but what about everyone else?

Overall, Google’s reach into the car causes trepidation among insiders and consumers alike. Consumers are becoming increasingly wary of intrusions into their privacy and the seemingly insatiable demand for access to their personal data. Car manufacturers risk having potentially lucrative services being bypassed for free (and oftentimes superior) services from Google. They also risk losing out on monetizing a literal treasure trove of valuable vehicle and consumer data available from their vehicle, data that can be used to provide new insurance offerings, advanced diagnostics, deeper personalization and targeted advertising.

In fact, Google’s entry into the automotive market and the promise of a revolution in the automotive infotainment space is reminiscent of Microsoft’s entry with the AutoPC in the late 1990s, which turned out to be a difficult journey for Microsoft. As the dominant tech company of its day, Microsoft offered the prospect of a PC in every car, complete with a suite of applications much like those we are building today. Despite its dominant market position, the original AutoPC was not successful, and took Microsoft many years to remix the formula and attain success in the automotive world. This may or may not be the case for Apple and Google, but it’s a scenario they should not ignore, nonetheless.

Details are sparse as of yet, but 2014 will likely be the year when the Google and Apple approaches are fully revealed and better understood. With the emergence of these competing giants into the automotive space, the pace of innovation in the car will likely pick up.

Michael O’Shea is CEO of Abalta Technologies, a leader in designing and developing software solutions for the automotive industry. Reach him @albaltatech.

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