As the car becomes a connected Internet device, the titans of the tech sector are battling for control of the wheel.
The war is shaping up a lot like the computer sector, with Google, Apple and Microsoft and others fighting to be in control of the vehicle's “operating system” to deliver apps, navigation and other services.
Some of those battles were played out this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which included a record nine auto manufacturers and scores of equipment makers, including software and related tech companies.
Grant Courville, director of product management at QNX, which makes the on-board systems used on tens of millions of cars, explained: “People want consumer apps in their cars, they want to connect to their smartphones, they want to connect to the cloud.
“But the battlefield is wide open because there's no clear dominant app ecosystem in the automotive industry.”
At the show Canadian-based QNX announced a partnership with Qualcomm to support the chipmaker's new automotive platform, which connects to smartphones and offers apps for maps, speech recognition, geolocation, and vehicle analytics.
At the same time, Google presented a consortium with General Motors, Audi, Honda and Hyundai in a new partnership to bring the Android mobile system to vehicles in a new Open Automotive Alliance.
The moves come with Microsoft in a longstanding partnership with Ford, and Apple widely expected to expand its system for connecting the iPhone with automotive electronics systems.
“Carmakers are conflicted.”
Tim Tang, an analyst with IDC attending the Las Vegas expo, commented: “They’re trying to decide whether to build their own systems or partner with another company. If they partner, they mitigate a lot of the risk, but they give a lot away, looking at future services such as apps and pay-as you go insurance.
“Nobody’s certain where it is going but carmakers don't want to be left out.
“The car is becoming a mobile accessory.”
Tang said a key question for automakers was whether the cars should have a dedicated connection or use the smartphone.
“If it’s a smartphone model, it's easy to get traction quickly, you don't need to design the system five years in advance. But if it’s built into the car you have some advantages. If the car is stolen, for example, you can shut it off.”
General Motors division Chevrolet said this week it would deploy fourth generation Internet connections on several models to help drivers who want to stay connected with the growing number of apps for automobiles.
But compatibility issues in the nascent “infotainment” technology can mean some systems deliver apps from Apple or Android but not both.
Mazda this week at CES announced a partnership with US software firm OpenCar to launch a new standards-based app system that allows the on-board screen to act as a browser and use a wide range of applications on the internet.
Paul Boyes, head of telematics and standards for Seattle-based OpenCar, said carmakers using the system would have more control of the apps, being able to choose those deemed safe for the road, and be able to draw from the full Internet, not just Android or Apple.
“With us, the carmakers are tied to a browser, not a company,” he said. “If you have Apple or Android, you are married to their system.”
“Infotainment and connectivity are becoming a major decision-making factor in car buying.”
Mazda staff manager Hideki Okano said car companies were being forced to consider these new systems when designing vehicles, to keep up with what consumers were demanding.
Courville said his firm, a unit of BlackBerry, was benefiting from the growth in new technologies, because it could deliver an overall platform which could interact with Android, Apple, and others.
“You need that battle-hardened system,” he said. “We're the market leader in infotainment.”
Even if carmakers want to use a system such as Android, they still need to build into the car a system designed for smartphones and tablets.
“There's no automotive version of Android,” he said, adding that QNX is a partner with Apple as well for automotive.
“We provide a framework and platform for automotive that is reliable and secure.”