Apple and Google: Barbarians at the gate?

Apple and Google: Barbarians at the gate?

Apple's Siri is showing up in cars, with most of the major auto makers now also saying they'll support Apple's car-centric iOS 7. Google, meanwhile, keeps hinting that it will deliver autonomous car technology within five years.

Are these iconic brands of the consumer electronics space muscling their way among the telematics industry's entrenched players, perhaps even trying to make the automobile another cog in their massive marketing machines?

Most industry watchers are skeptical, but they cannot afford to ignore the two companies either. And because both Apple and Google remain tight-lipped about their future plans, everybody is left guessing.

“Any time there’s a large company with a lot of money and R&D, it’s not wise to count them out,” says Andy Gryc, senior automotive product marketing manager, QNX Software Systems.

Still, he believes a philosophical disconnect between the two companies and the auto industry may keep Apple and Google from dominating the connected car space.

“They see the car as a transport that interferes with your ability to use the mobile,” he says. “Wise OEMs will hold back a little, see how initial forays will go, and think about whether they want their cars to be a container for Google ads and services.”

Jim Nardulli, senior vice president of auto sales for NNG, agrees.

“Google is great, but we should never forget that their only business is advertising,” he says. “They’re not after the cars we make; they’re after the 250 hours per year average of face time in the car. This is a risk we should think about because, at the end of the day, we might want to make some money on this stuff.”

Apple's latest moves

This year has been particularly rich in automotive announcements from Apple and Google, something that's greatly fueled the rumor mill.

At Apple's June developers' conference, 13 major auto makers, including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Chevrolet and Honda, pledged to support iOS 7, which lets the car's onboard screen replicate the iPhone interface and controls, enabling control of apps on an iPhone 5 or later via the car's instrumentation or Siri Eyes Free – a very MirrorLink approach. First cars with the screen replication technology are expected next year.

Also, Apple recently received a U.S. patent for hardware and methods for an automotive HMI enabling "simultaneously tracking multiple finger and palm contacts as hands approach, touch, and slide across a proximity-sensing, multi-touch surface."

The patent, which is a continuation of a series of other patents beginning in 1998, says the invention would enable the integration of typing, resting, pointing, scrolling, 3D manipulation and hand writing. Still, it is unclear whether this patent might have any kind of bearing on today's telematics marketplace.

"It would be a big leap for Apple to get into in-vehicle hardware,” says Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst and manager, infotainment & HMI, IHS Automotive. “They have always played in the consumer electronics space; they do really well there. The car, even though there's been a shortening in the development timeframe, is still a different animal."

Google advances

Google’s intentions for the automotive space are somewhat clearer, though what role the digital giant will ultimately end up playing is anyone’s guess.

For one thing, Google has both an operating system that is becoming popular with builders of low- to medium-end in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems. Think Renault’s R-Link, for example. R-Link, which launched late last year, is Europe’s first major IVI system based on Android.

The company has a massive content distribution platform that lets it engage in the kind of data mining that car makers can only dream of.

Finally, Google has gained kudos for its autonomous vehicle concepts. While most major automakers have now announced their own paths to autonomous driving – often soft-pedaled as "highly automated driving" – Googlers routinely tell conference goers that they will have "something" on the market in three to five years.

Some think that Google will license an autonomous driving system to car makers; others believe Google will go the aftermarket route. Speculators say Google might team up with a hardware maker to provide a device that consumers could somehow plug into their car systems and thus enable at least semi-autonomous functionality.

"Google is not going to sell a modified car, they will sell the software, intelligence, location platforms to an automaker," Boyadjis says. "Google plans to have something productized by then, but that doesn't necessarily mean an automaker has signed on. They need to be talking to Google right now and be in production in the next two to three years."

(For more on Google and autonomous cars, see The autonomous car: The road to driverless driving.)

iPhone integration and embedded Android

When it comes to Apple penetrating automotive, it could be as simple as iPhone integration, where the phone serves as an interface to the car's own systems, rather than something that's integral to the car.

Boyadjis thinks the iOS7 announcement was long on hype and short on details. "iOS in the car is an interesting play for them – another announcement that they're interested in being a central media device for the car. But looking into the details, there's not anything truly innovative," he says.

Dominique Bonte, vice president and practice director at ABI Research, is equally skeptical when it comes to Google. While he acknowledges that Google has been very active in automotive, from maps and mobile search to autonomous vehicles, he does not foresee Android penetrating deeply as an auto OS.

While the major automotive operating systems – QNX, Windows Embedded and GENIVI – are designed with automotive requirements at the forefront, he says that car companies that are using Android are probably spending a lot of extra money integrating it and modifying it. "So we don't expect to see a lot more examples of embedded systems based on Android," he says.

(For more on Apple and Google in the telematics space, see Telematics and the Apple-Google battle over connected cars.)

Consumer is king

Still, end of the day, it may not be up to the car makers to decide whether Apple and Google are a good enough fit for the car.

Speaking at the recent Telematics Detroit 2013, a flagship Telematics Update conference, Doug Claus, Department manager – product requirements, development & ConnectedDrive at BMW of North America, explained that, for model year 2014, BMW will offer both its own voice controls and Siri: Press the button once for Nuance Dragon Drive voice control; hold it down to use Siri.

Cumbersome? Yes. Expensive? Yes. Claus shrugged. “Siri is cool at the beginning, but the wow factor goes down,” he said. “Still, there are a number of people who want it, so we did it.”

Anupam Malhotra, senior strategist for Audi’s Connected Vehicles Strategy Office, said Audi also is working on Siri integration, while it already offers Google Voice. He said the effort it took to integrate Google Voice was “eye-opening on both sides, and the company now is having similar challenges with Siri."

Evidently, despite Android's open-source roots and the power of Google's best brains, the Google voice controls were far from plug-and-play. To be sure, Audi began working with Google as early as 2005, well before Google Voice had even gone mobile, and that’s one of the main reasons why the integration was so hard.

Aside from technical challenges, Malhotra said that what auto makers must consider whether there’s a strong use case that benefits the customer.

But even Malhotra and Claus said that they don’t see Google or Apple as threats. “They’re pioneers,” Claus said. “You wouldn’t have a tablet industry without Apple, and we’re learning also from Google on the autonomous driving side to improve our ADAS systems.”

(A Telematics Detroit 2013 panel discussion on the subject – Apple, Google, Microsoft: Barbarians at the Gate or Potential IVI partners  – is available on demand through TUWebcast.)

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Insurance Telematics USA 2013 on Sept. 4-5 in Chicago, Telematics Brazil & LATAM 2013 on Sept. 11-12 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Telematics Japan/China 2013 on Oct. 8-10 in Tokyo, Telematics Munich 2013 on Nov. 11-12 in Munich, Germany, Telematics for Fleet Management USA 2013 on Nov. 20-21 in Atlanta, Georgia, and Content and Apps for Automotive USA 2013 on Dec. 11-12 in San Francisco.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013The Automotive HMI Report 2013Insurance Telematics Report 2013 and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012.

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