Digital Giants Battle for the Dashboard

Humans aren’t the only passengers accompanying us in our cars. In fact, there are more constant companions that come along with us for almost every ride – our smartphones.

Unlike the automotive market, with its clutch of carmakers and army of third-party suppliers and solutions providers, the smartphone ecosystem is basically a two-horse race. The phone in your possession right now almost certainly runs on one of a mere two major operating systems, Apple iOS or Android Automotive OS (AAOS), which was developed by fellow Silicon Valley powerhouse Google. This duopoly extends into the vehicle, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connecting phone to ride, allowing us to listen to podcasts and music, and providing easy access to a selection of helpful apps.

The thing is, in contrast to certain automakers’ in-car systems, Apple Car and Android Auto seem as if they haven’t evolved much since their respective introductions. Disruption is a way of life in the tech world. Are one or both of these native smartphone auto ecosystems about to be hit by a tsunami of more sophisticated functionalities from third-party developers?

Iliya Rybchin, a partner at business consultancy Elixirr who covers vehicle technology, doesn’t think so. In fact, he believes that the impression some may have of quickly developing carmaker auto systems versus turtle-slow CarPlay or Android Auto is inaccurate. “Every few months a new phone is released with faster processors, more storage, and better screens,” he said. “Mobile apps have a faster innovation cycle because you can write an app, test it, and push it into the app store anytime. Any change to an automobile takes years of planning. In fact, the features for OEMs in-car systems for 2025 model year vehicles are already locked in… meanwhile Apple and Google may not have locked in the features for next month’s updates to CarPlay and [Android Auto],” he added.

The fact that neither system’s user interface has changed all that dramatically actually works in their favor, according to Alex Oyler, head of car IT at consultancy SBD Automotive. “Most drivers are simple: they don’t want to have to completely re-learn how to use a system whenever they get a new device, whether it be a phone or a car,” he reasoned. “Ease of access to their most-use applications, and predictable, simple interfaces are attractive to people who often use the same small number of features in the car. As the saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

On top of that, Apple and Google already have one great advantage car manufacturers will probably never enjoy, according to Rybchin. “The mobile device enjoys a more intimate consumer relationship than any other product… it knows who you call, when you call, where you go and you take it to the toilet and sleep next to it on your nightstand. ABSOLUTELY no vehicle OEM will get that level of ‘stickiness’ to the consumer,” he said.

Another advantage CarPlay and Android Auto enjoy is that they offer a relatively easy, tack-on connectivity and infotainment solution for carmakers or solutions providers devising their latest whiz-bang offerings. Instead of reinventing the wheel and designing a phone interface from virtually the ground up, these parties can simply make room for the Apple and Google systems – either through a formal technology partnership or otherwise. Then they can spend their time, capital and resources on developing and improving their own functionalities.

Sounding a rather confident note, Android Auto product lead Haris Ramic said that “We have a very collaborative relationship with many partners for their existing and future programs.” One reason might be that Google is quite flexible about such collaboration. “Partners can choose to pass the AAOS certification program, which enables partners and developers to know that their services will work on that platform,” Ramic said. “However, such certification is optional and partners do not have to work with us. Many choose to take open-source AAOS and ship without ever talking or working with Google.”

Apple did not respond to an interview request for this article but given the widespread availability of CarPlay throughout today’s in-cabin ecosystem, it also surely has many eager partners. A clever automaker or developer might be in a position to design a smartphone/car interface that’s faster, sexier, and better than either Apple or Google solution, sure. Many have the resources and collective brainpower to do so. But the more likely possibility is that they’ll continue to cede this ground to the two tech giants.

That’s a situation that could actually work out happily for all concerned. Oyler pointed out that “the value chain for the digital cockpit isn’t zero-sum. While Apple and Google benefit from the data collected from users, and consumers benefit from the integration of personalized apps and services, automakers can offer unique driving experiences, in-cabin enhancements, connected services, and over-the-air updates that act as a completely new value stream independent of brought-in infotainment,” he added.

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