Given all the recent and exciting rumors about a collaboration between Google and Audi on an Android based automotive infotainment system, I thought it would be a good time to share some thoughts I put together about the idea last year after Apple announced their "iOS in the Car" interface:
Google needs to move into the automotive infotainment space. Apple is already on its way there with “iOS in the Car”, but I feel like Android can also find success in the center stack. The automotive industry is a complex one. There is a lot of regulation and standardization around many aspects of the vehicle, except one glaringly obvious area. The infotainment systems. Every manufacturer has their own hardware and software interface, designed more or less from the ground up. This means there is no interoperability between the different manufacturers’ systems. So, the overall user base of one company’s system, even if that company is as large as General Motors or Volkswagen, will always be dwarfed by Android and iOS. If there is one thing that can be learned from Windows Phone, it’s that a thriving ecosystem of users and developers is needed for success. You’re not going to get very many developers to make apps just for a single automotive OEM’s user base. And if companies like GM and VW would struggle to attract developers, imagine the difficulties Land Rover or Subaru would have.
There is also the issue of stubbornness. The automotive industry is filled with big egos that are resistant to change. Getting all of the OEMs to agree on some sort of operating system standard would be next to impossible. They would all also be very concerned about not being able to infuse their brand identity into the interface of the center stack. None of them really have the skills in-house to develope a well thought out system anyways. This is where Android can step in. Like we’ve seen with so many smartphone OEMs, Android can be tweaked and tuned to have a very unique look and feel. This also means they can pre-install apps that control vehicle functions like air conditioning or heated seats. While this custom approach doesn’t always yield the best user interface results, it’s better than every OEM developing their own incompatible operating systems. More importantly though, this approach allows for a healthy app ecosystem to develop.
Now, I don’t think Android can succeed in the car without Google’s help. Apps for cars need a little bit more consideration because they need a UI that doesn’t distract the driver. It can’t simply be your phone interface shoved up in the dashboard. So, developers would have to create purpose built UIs in their apps. Google can create some reference designs to guide developers. They would also need a section in the Google Play store dedicated to apps that have automotive interfaces.
An Android based infotainment system has one other thing going for it. If it only relies on your smartphone for a data connection, it can work with any type of phone. An Android phone, an iPhone, heck even a Windows Phone. This is something an iOS based system would probably never do. Though a system designed by the folks in Cupertino would come with its own set of advantages.
Apple has already started its incursion into your vehicle. It started in 2012 with Siri “Eyes Free” then continued this year with “iOS in the Car”. The way Apple controls its ecosystem gives it some very distinct advantages in the automotive space. Apple’s model lends itself to greater stability, which is a big deal in a high reliability, safety focused industry like automotive. And just like in the mobile electronics space, updates can be pushed out to all users quickly. This is also important when safety is involved. Apple’s tight control also has its disadvantages as well. Automakers would most likely not be allowed to customize the interface to fit their own band identities, which most companies would consider a negative. Though, they could direct customers to the app store where they could download say, a Ford app that would allow for control of vehicle functions through the “iOS in the Car” interface.
It would be necessary for Apple to also lend support by creating an automotive section in the App Store. This would work exactly the same way the iPad section of the App Store does. Apple’s app approval process would also be a big positive for it in this situation. They could have specific interface guidelines that promote safe interactions while driving. Each app could be vetted to ensure it meets those guidelines.