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Apple and Google are coming for your car

Big Tech’s big car ambitions have antitrust advocates worried.

A promotional image of Apple CarPlay showing the electronic dashboard of a car with icons like an iPhone.
Apple’s next generation of CarPlay turns your dashboard into a giant iPhone.
Apple

We may have gotten a sneak peek at the long-rumored, long-awaited Apple Car when the company unveiled the next generation of its CarPlay feature at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference. The new CarPlay, due to be released next year, will essentially turn your car’s dashboard into a giant iPhone.

If you love Apple products (and cars), this was probably a thrilling announcement. But antitrust advocates and lawmakers who believe Big Tech already has too much power over too many aspects of American life feel differently.

“All of the major tech companies have tried to maintain their dominance in these nascent industries,” Krista Brown, senior policy analyst at the American Economic Liberties Project, an antitrust advocacy organization, told Recode. It’s not just cars, she said, but also things like virtual reality and financial technology. “What you notice across all of them is that they hold massive amounts of data.”

Google and Apple have been moving into cars for nearly a decade now, from powering dashboards and infotainment systems to building autonomous and electric vehicles. As cars have become, essentially, giant computers, it stands to reason that the tech companies that make smaller computers would want to (and be able to) capitalize on that. As an added bonus, it’s an opportunity for them to attract new customers to their digital ecosystems — which then makes it much harder for companies that don’t have those ecosystems to compete — and get that much more data on where we go and what we do. That data then gives those companies even more of a competitive advantage.

“There is a flywheel effect, where the amount of data they have allows them to provide better information. That doesn’t mean that we should exist in a world where they then become the sole providers of that information,” Brown said.

Apple, which claims that CarPlay is available in over 98 percent of cars in the United States, isn’t the only company trying to get deeper hooks into your dashboard. Amazon’s Alexa is an option for increasingly more cars, with some models offering Alexa Built-In, where the digital assistant comes pre-installed and ready to use (as long as you have an Amazon account). Then you can ask Alexa to do most of the same things it’ll do for you in your house, like play music, give you directions, tell you the weather, and order stuff from Amazon.

Google’s doing even more. First, there’s Android Auto, which, like CarPlay, requires you to connect your device and then mirrors it on the in-car touchscreen. Then there’s Android Automotive Operating System (AAOS), which is free and open source. Carmakers can use it to build their own infotainment systems — basically, AAOS is the car equivalent to Android’s mobile operating system. Finally, there’s Google Automotive Services, which are Google-licensed apps carmakers can offer in their infotainment systems, including Maps, Play Store, and Assistant — the car equivalent to Google Play Services on Android mobile devices.

Adoption of AAOS is booming: While less than 1 percent of cars sold today use Android Automotive, industry analyst Gartner predicts that 70 percent of cars sold in 2028 will. That doesn’t mean they’ll all also have Google Automotive Services (currently, several manufacturers don’t), nor that consumers will be restricted just to Google’s offerings if they do. It does mean that Google may soon own the operating system that powers the majority of new cars’ infotainment systems.

“Car manufacturers have tried for several years to build an ecosystem of customer-oriented digital services around their vehicles, but they have mostly failed in the type and breadth of those services, as well as in the true convenience they deliver to customers,” a recent Gartner report said. “As tech and software will become more and more the decisive factors for this industry, tech companies see an opportunity here to further leverage their expertise.”

Basically, if you’re buying a new car these days, most will offer support for Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, or Amazon Alexa — if not all three. Antitrust advocates and some lawmakers see this as another way these massive companies can draw more people into their ecosystems and make it harder for them to leave. That’ll give those companies that much more data, and make it that much harder for new or smaller companies to compete. Recently, some pro-consumer groups have been sounding the alarm.

In a letter to antitrust hawks Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and antitrust enforcement agencies the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice last January, 28 consumer and antitrust activist groups warned that Big Tech’s “next target” was the car industry. Letter signees include Brown’s American Economic Liberties Project as well as Demand Progress, Public Citizen, and the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. Of specific concern was consumer privacy, given the enormous amounts of data cars generate that Big Tech companies could collect and use.

“The data privacy and security implications are grave,” the letter said. “Google already profits off of our browser history. Imagine if they can also monetize our behavior behind-the-wheel as well. They know where we go, what we search for, and now they’ll know how often we use our turn signals or go five miles over the limit.”

In April, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), along with 10 other Democratic representatives, wrote to the FTC and the DOJ with their concerns over Big Tech and the automobile industry, seeing this as a chance to get ahead of a potential competition issue before a few companies dominate another market — as Google and Apple have done with smartphone operating systems.

“Big Tech is rapidly doing to cars what it already did to cell phones,” the letter said. “Urgent action is needed to protect workers, privacy, and the competitive landscape.”

Tech companies, in turn, are making the usual assurances that consumer data will be protected and consumer privacy choices will be respected. They also often point out how there’s plenty of competition and choice in the car industry, both for consumers (who, for now, can usually choose among several different companies’ connected car offerings or not use any at all) and carmakers looking for tech companies to power their infotainment systems.

It’s also worth noting that there’s a reason why carmakers (and consumers) might be embracing Big Tech’s offerings: They’re better. Car infotainment systems are notoriously bad; Ford’s (which was powered by Microsoft) was so hated that it was the subject of a class action lawsuit.

“Infotainment and navigation in cars is an area where carmakers and drivers have actively sought our investments and products to improve the experience,” a Google spokesperson told Recode. “Carmakers have chosen to work with us for over a decade because we provide them with choice and flexibility, and deliver a variety of helpful and safe experiences to drivers.”

Pedro Pacheco, a car industry analyst at Gartner, said this was not about Big Tech taking over an area that belonged to the car industry, but about carmakers realizing how well Big Tech’s digital ecosystems could work for them as their products integrate more and more technology.

“Carmakers never owned a digital ecosystem,” Pacheco said. “Carmakers need to use big tech’s digital ecosystem in order to offer more and better digital features to their customers.”

But antitrust advocates aren’t just concerned about Big Tech and infotainment systems. They also see these moves as the beginning of a possible future where Big Tech has a much bigger role in vehicles as those vehicles become more dependent on sophisticated technology to run. These companies are making big investments in more than just infotainment systems and dashboards. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, owns self-driving technology company Waymo. Amazon bought Zoox, an autonomous vehicle startup, and owns part of electric carmaker Rivian. And Microsoft, which has operated in the vehicle space for decades now, is making its own moves into self-driving vehicles with an investment in Cruise, a self-driving electric car ride and delivery service.

Apple looks to be following its smartphone playbook for its cars: own and control the hardware, software, and services. The Apple Car, which has been in the works for years, is rumored to be an autonomous, electric vehicle that Apple would, of course, have a lot of control over. It’s easy to see a world where third parties that want to make apps or services or really anything for your Apple Car are subject to Apple’s terms and conditions (and any commissions) to do so, just like they are for most things in your iPhone. Just look at how Apple used its control over iPhones to give it exclusive access to the near-field communications chip needed to power digital car keys. That means no one else can make a digital car key for an Apple device except Apple itself. Apple’s refusal to open up its NFC chip for payment services has already led to antitrust charges from the European Union (Apple has said that it doesn’t allow third parties to access the chip for security reasons).

CarPlay may not just be a preview of the Apple Car. Antitrust advocates fear it may also be a preview of a world where almost all cars are powered by just two companies’ operating systems. Brown, of the American Economic Liberties Project, sees no reason to think Big Tech companies wouldn’t try to dominate that space the way they have others.

“Unless by some miracle they decide to overcome their draw toward abusing their dominance, I think because of what they can provide, they will, and they’ll push out others,” she said. “The same way that Apple has with their App Store.”

Before the iPhone came along, it was hard to imagine a world where you relied on your phone when driving your car. Fifteen years later, it’s hard to imagine using your car without your phone to give you directions, play music, make calls, and even unlock your door and hold your driver’s license. In another 15 years, we may well be living in a world full of vehicles that are autonomous, electric, and powered by the same companies that power our phones. They may work better than anything traditional car companies and services could have done on their own, but the price may also be much higher than we realize.