audi infotainment

Smartphones are ubiquitous and the platforms that power them are finding their way into all sorts of new devices. Wearables are flooding into the market, home automation isn’t far behind, and now cars are shaping up to be a major battleground. There are more than 1 billion cars on the road and we spend countless hours in them. Current in-dash technology is generally surprisingly awful. Why not integrate mobile platforms?

The Open Automotive Alliance

Google announced the Open Automotive Alliance in January with the stated aim of bringing the Android platform to cars starting this year. There are some heavyweights onboard already, including Audi, GM, Honda, Hyundai, and Nvidia.

“Millions of people are already familiar with Android and use it everyday,” explains Sundar Pichai, SVP of Android, Chrome & Apps at Google on the official Open Automotive Alliance website. “The expansion of the Android platform into automotive will allow our industry partners to more easily integrate mobile technology into cars and offer drivers a familiar, seamless experience so they can focus on the road.”

It’s not exactly a catchy name, but it’s clearly designed to mirror the Open Handset Alliance, which played an important role in Android’s rapid growth on mobile technology. It looks like there are two central aims:

  1. Ensure that cars integrate with your Android devices seamlessly.
  2. Ensure that the Android platform can actually run on cars.

Cool Cars CES 2014-5

What’s the problem?

Glance at the forums for any smartphone or car and you’ll find countless complaints about Bluetooth syncing problems and clunky features. Car manufacturers are far from great at creating interfaces and usable software. Even a high-end brand like BMW has been criticized for its iDrive system.

For a while there, the SatNav firms were trying to move in, but smartphones are fast overtaking that industry, and they extend the possibilities well beyond navigation to communication and entertainment.

In terms of apps it has largely been left up to third-parties to innovate, although recent developments like Motorola Assist on the Moto X are intended to make things easier by automatically picking up on the fact that you’re driving and switching to a hands-free mode.

By working directly with car manufacturers to properly integrate Android there’s room to create an infinitely smoother solution.

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What can Android offer?

It’s easy to imagine the potential here. Your smartphone automatically links up to the car when you get in. Perhaps your smartphone screen is mirrored on the car’s display. The onboard dash can integrate with Google Now, offering likely destinations and live traffic updates for the daily commute. Hands-free operation and voice commands are a no-brainer. Access to your music collection in the cloud, or other entertainment, should be simple.

At first this is achieved by linking your smartphone and relying on it for the connectivity and control; down the line you have a full version of Android running on the car that can be controlled by the dash panel or through your linked smartphone.

Phone and car manufacturers, and third-parties, can develop specifically for in-car Android, so there would be scope for apps covering things like navigation, entertainment, car function controls, detailed diagnostics, remote alerts, and tracking your car’s position. You could even have a profile set up that would be triggered by your smartphone and dictate everything from your favorite radio station to your preferred seat position (could be ideal for shared cars).

Some of these things are possible now, but not without some work on your part, potential technical hitches, and a relatively new car. Imagine how much easier it would be if it came as standard.

NVIDIA Tegra K1 Car CES 2014 4

What about the competition?

The wealth of valuable data generated by computers in cars and the lucrative potential of in-car entertainment systems is not something that the rest of the market is going to cede to Google and the gang.

Apple has announced CarPlay, which enables you to plug in an iPhone (with Lightning connector) via USB and get directions, make calls, send messages, and listen to music on the in-car display. Voice control is offered through Siri. It will be supported on models from Ferrari, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo this year, and Apple has named Ford, Toyota, Chevrolet, BMW, Nissan, and a few others as partners.

This approach is slightly different because there’s no way any manufacturer will allow iOS to actually run on the car because Apple controls it so tightly. That’s where the “open” element of Android comes into play making it an attractive proposition for a platform that will actually run on the cars.

There are a couple of other industry initiatives. MirrorLink from the Connected Car Consortium is trying to bridge the gap between smartphones and vehicle controls and systems. There’s also an alliance called GENIVI, which is using an open-source in-car platform based on Meego.

Then there’s Microsoft‘s Windows Embedded Automotive 7, which you’ll find in a various cars from Ford, Fiat, Nissan, and Kia. Although Ford recently announced it will switch to BlackBerry’s QNX, which is already being used by GM, Acura, BMW, and Toyota. Apparently Apple’s CarPlay system is compatible with QNX.

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Can Android dominate?

The current situation is crying out for change. The user experience is way worse than it has to be and car manufacturers understand the importance of seemingly small details when it comes to standing out from the competition. No manufacturer is going to want to choose, they’ll want their cars to work with any smartphone, and they’ll expect to exert a great deal of control over any software that’s installed on their vehicles.

Android is well-placed to make a real dent. As Pichai pointed out, people are familiar with Android already, and it’s more widely used than any other platform. It also has a large development community and more apps than any other platform. By pushing it forward under the Open Automotive Alliance banner, Google can gain a foothold, but it does have some catching up to do.

We know Google is all about big data and (just as it did for phone manufacturers) it will make things as cheap and easy as possible for car manufacturers to encourage Android adoption. It seems like a natural move when you consider that driverless cars are already on Google’s horizon.

What do you think? What would you like to see in an Android car?

Simon Hill

Simon is an experienced tech writer with a background in game development. He writes for various websites and magazines about the world of tech and entertainment. He uses Android every day and is currently permanently attached to his Galaxy Note 5.