Telematics and the Apple-Google battle over connected cars

Apple fans were delighted at the company's recent announcement that it had signed deals with eight automakers to integrate Siri voice control technology into cars. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley geeks were agog at Google's autonomous vehicle, recently sighted on highways and at fast food joints.

But fanboys weren't the only ones who noticed these two automotive announcements. In a research note about the news, Baird Equity Research warned that systems that allow drivers to plug smartphones into vehicles could hurt the market for embedded infotainment systems. (For more on smartphones, see The smartphone as a model for telematics HMIs, part I, The smartphone as a model for telematics HMIs, part II, Telematics, smartphones and the future of connected infotainment, and Telematics and the ‘built-in’ vs. ‘brought-in’ debate.)

Naming names

Apple's June announcement was short on details, but it named names: GM, Toyota, Chrysler, Honda, Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Jaguar/Land Rover. Beyond all the fanfare, even the sketchy details don't seem much different from other voice control systems already on or coming onto the market.

A month after Apple, Nuance Communications announced that BMW will make its Dragon Drive messaging available in some high-end 2012 BMWs, with additional models to follow. BMW's offering sounds a lot like what Apple teased: Your smartphone connects with BMW's ConnectedDrive and BMW Assist to provide voice controls. Oh, that sounds a  lot like Ford Sync, too, doesn't it?

Niall Berkery, senior director of business development for TeleNav, points out that enabling Siri in the car would be a very simple task. "It looks a lot like audio integration,” he says. “Even today you can do a similar thing. If you have a Jawbone Bluetooth headset, you can call up Siri in the car."

Differentiating the voice experience

In a sense, comparing Siri to Sync is comparing apples to apples. Although Nuance refuses to say more than that it licenses its tech for various Apple products, it's widely believed to power Siri. Its voice recognition underlies many other systems, including both embedded and aftermarket devices.

However, while Ford Sync, for example, uses the Nuance voice recognition system in the head unit, Microsoft's TellMe handles the cloud processing of requests like ‘Find a sushi restaurant’. Dragon Drive, on the other hand, includes Nuance's own cloud-based technology. These differences in handling off-board voice processing, as well as the interface between tech and driver, can account for big differences in the driver's experience. (For more on telematics and the cloud, see Special report: Telematics and apps.)

"The solutions are all slightly different flavors," says John Canali, senior analyst in the Strategy Analytics Automotive Multimedia and Communications practice. "The thing that Apple always seems to do really well is figure out the HMI." (For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report and Human Machine Interface Technologies.)

One crucial difference between the vaguely defined Siri integration and Ford's and BMW's voice controls is that, presumably, iPhone users would get the Apple-defined voice and experience rather than the car maker's. Canali wonders if there may be more to the announcement than just voice. It's notable that Ford, Kia and Fiat, the main consumers of the Microsoft OS, were all absent from Apple's announcement. Maybe Apple is eying an automotive platform.

"I think the strategy is a multi-screen approach,” Canali says. “The car infotainment system is the next screen to defend and another way of keeping consumers within their ecosystem—and convincing them they don't want to move from Apple to Android.”

Apple versus Google

In the car as elsewhere, Apple and Google are on a collision course. Apple recently said it would no longer use Google maps on its phones. Apple and Google both license GSI and map information and then build interfaces on top of it, just like voice controls. Right now, it's all about navigation on the phones, according to Canali. But the car could become another map battleground, especially if Apple does build an iCar. (For more on the car as a connected device, see Telematics and Generation Y: Making the car an iPhone on wheels, Will concept cars ignite the telematics market?, and Telematics and the car-as-service model.)

Handicapping a race to the car between the two, Canali says, "Apple has more of an ecosystem built up, while Google has some holes in it. Google has an operating system, but the hardware is distributed across a number of different manufacturers. And it doesn't have the loyalty."

This is also a struggle to control applications and services to the car, according to Canali.

A couple of years ago, automakers were thinking about the OnStar model, where they could deliver services to a captive audience via an embedded unit. Now, not so much.

"Does GM or Toyota have the money or expertise to compete with Apple or Google so far from their core competencies?” Canali asks. “Tier 1 suppliers sure as hell don't. They're all talking about cloud solutions, but that's not where they're comfortable. I think the ball definitely is more in Apple's court or Google's or whatever the major technology partner is."

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on connected cars, see Special report: Telematics and apps.

For more all the latest telematics trends, check out Insurance Telematics USA 2012 in September in Chicago, Telematics Brazil & LATAM 2012 on Sept. 12-13 in Sao Paulo, Telematics Japan 2012 in October in Tokyo, Telematics Munich 2012 on October 29-30, Telematics for Fleet Management USA 2012 in November in Atlanta, and Content and Apps for Automotive USA 2012 on Dec. 4-5 in San Diego.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports on In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report and Human Machine Interface Technologies.


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