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Toyota to Adopt Ford's Entertainment Software to Fend Off Google, Apple

Ford's hope is to give the car industry a credible alternative to entertainment systems from Apple and Google.


Last April, Ford CEO Mark Fields vowed to avoid the fate of so many other partners that ended up as little more than commodity delivery mechanisms for Apple and Google products.

“At the end of the day, we don’t want to end up [like] the handset business,” Ford CEO Mark Fields told Re/code in an interview last year, referring to the cellphone industry, which has seen the bulk of its profits shift from those that make the devices to the tech companies whose software operates the hardware.

On Monday, Fields will take a step closer to his promise. Ford plans to announce that Toyota will become the first rival carmaker to use Ford’s SmartDeviceLink, the software platform designed to help developers write a version of its software — Pandora, for instance — to run on cars that have adopted the system. SmartDeviceLink is behind Ford’s Sync 3 in-car navigation and entertainment system.

By offering its system to rivals, Ford hopes to improve the odds that Detroit can keep up with Silicon Valley in what is shaping up to be a key battle between the auto and tech industries. Ford said it is in discussions with Honda, Mazda and Subaru, which are considering adopting the platform.

Last year, the company said it was open sourcing SmartDeviceLink. Ford’s hope is that if it gets multiple carmakers to use the same system, mobile developers will find it easier to create apps for cars; currently, they are forced to rewrite apps for more than a dozen different in-car systems. It is part of Ford’s attempt to keep Google’s Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay from dominating real estate on its home turf behind the wheels even as it pledges support for both systems in all Sync 3-equipped cars.

Today, both CarPlay and Android Auto act as a secondary system to whatever the carmakers use for entertainment and navigation. That means a car has to have its own system built into the car, and Android Auto or CarPlay only take over when a driver plugs in their own smartphone. But over time, this alliance approach is likely to change as automakers and tech companies fight for full control of the dashboard.

“We’re not going to develop every app, every experience the consumer wants,” Ford technical fellow Jim Buczkowski told Re/code. Nor can the auto industry, he said, expect already-stretched app makers to write separate programs for each brand of vehicle. “They are not going to be able to afford developing an iOS app and an Android app and then a Ford App, a GM app and a BMW app.”

But even if Ford can get other carmakers onboard, it still faces the tougher challenge of outdoing what Apple and Google have mastered: Creating a better consumer electronics experience. Working against carmakers is the industry’s slow pace, where change is measured in years, not months, like the tech industry.

Ford’s, and by extension the car industry’s, trump card is that entertainment is just the beginning. The platform is designed to allow carmakers to integrate many other functions of the automobile. Ford and others are already doing this by allowing their own apps to remotely start the car, locate a parked car and do other things that the more generic entertainment systems from Apple and Google cannot.

It has partnered with AT&T to provide built-in wireless connections, beginning with the 2017 Escape, to enable such features.

Ford is working to add more services on top of SmartDeviceLink that can take advantage of the data from the car. This year, drivers will be able to log their business mileage or look up nearby restaurants or the cheapest gas stations. Partners on those efforts include Tencent, Glympse, Concur and AAA.

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