With global consumers tethered to their smartphones, automakers realize their cars need to deliver a similar infotainment experience—even if that means sharing the ride with Google and other tech giants. The long-awaited Android Automotive OS system debuts in a few months in the 2020 Polestar 2, and will ultimately power millions of cars from General Motors, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance.
If you’re not familiar, Polestar is the new, electric and high-performance division of Sweden’s Volvo Cars and its China-based parent Geely Auto Group. And the Polestar Precept, an electric concept car unveiled online on Tuesday, after the coronavirus forced the cancellation of the Geneva International Motor Show, suggests a bright future for both Polestar design and Android OS.
But it’s the Polestar 2 that will debut the open-source system in showrooms, with its Android-powered navigation, apps, voice commands, and screen prods. The alluring fastback sedan, an electric rival to Tesla’s Model 3, combines 408 all-wheel-drive horsepower with a roughly 450-kilometer range for a US $63,000 starting price.
While Polestar will score the showroom first, General Motors made waves in September when it announced that Android OS will underpin the infotainment units of Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, and GMC models, beginning in the 2021 calendar year. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance are also onboard, with each automaker customizing the look and feel of systems to suit their own design needs. With GM alone holding about 17 percent of the U.S. car market, that’s a huge win for Google, according to Brian Rhodes, research and analysis manager for connected cars at IHS Markit.
“Volvo is the first domino to fall,” Rhodes said. “And for automakers, Google and consumers, it’s a big milestone in where infotainment is going.”
The Polestar 2 shows what this world, and its human-machine interface, will look like. Virtually every user control is housed on an 28-centimeter, tablet-style touchscreen in the sleekly minimal interior. (Fortunately, there’s still an analog audio knob, something that many drivers insist upon).
Owners will be able to access embedded features including Google Maps, Google Assistant, and Google Play Store, even when their phone is switched off. A phone-based digital key tailors the environment to individual users as they approach and unlock the car, adjusting settings for seats, mirrors, climate, and entertainment. Video streaming from popular apps and services will also be available, but only when the car is parked or charging.
Google Assistant, with its rapidly-expanding repertoire of languages, local accents, and conversational speech patterns, should improve upon the cumbersome, pre-set voice commands that many consumers despised—or never bothered to learn—in automakers’ in-house systems. Now, drivers can use it to connect with Google-connected smart devices in the home. And where old-school systems can no longer keep pace with rapid technological change—CD player, anyone?—Android OS units can be updated over-the-air, keeping infotainment and apps current as the car ages.
The Polestar Precept, for its part, offers a glimpse of future possibilities. Space under the hood, once given to an internal-combustion engine and radiators, houses dual radar sensors and a high-def camera behind a transparent panel and LED headlamps shaped like “Thor’s Hammer”, the latter carried over from Volvo. A lidar pod atop the glass roof, and wide-angle rear camera, complete the sensor suite for safety and driver-assistance functions. Camera-based units replace traditional side mirrors.
The Polestar Precept electric concept car, unveiled online on Tuesday, features Android’s Automotive OS. Images: Polestar
The Precept also previews the brand’s next-generation, Android-powered human-machine interface, including a portrait-oriented, 38-centimeter center touchscreen and 32-centimeter driver’s display. To address potential information overload and avoid driver distraction, the Precept’s interface features eye-tracking sensors that can illuminate screens or adjust content when drivers glance at them, then dim when they look away. Proximity sensors, already familiar in Cadillacs and some other luxury cars, call up relevant screen information as a hand approaches.
Automakers, which throughout history have farmed out some component design and manufacture to suppliers—including Bosch electronics and ZF transmissions—have realized that their embedded infotainment systems can no longer keep pace with Silicon Valley’s sophisticated best. Instead, buyers are demanding ecosystems that mimic apps they already use on their smartphones.
That imperative has allowed Apple and Google to pry their way into the automotive space. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto let users beam smartphone-based navigation and other apps to a car’s central touchscreen. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now available on more than 400 car models around the world, but still require a plugged-in, charged-up phone to operate.
Not to be left behind, Amazon is partnering with Toyota, Audi, Ford, and other automakers to bring Alexa to the dashboard. Microsoft is co-developing infotainment with Ford, Hyundai, and Kia. Rhodes says that tech giants’ foray into cars certainly raises issues over privacy, and who will control or monetize data.
“From Google’s perspective, it’s about collecting data, period,” Rhodes said. “It’s the strategy they entered automotive with, and the strategy they continue to pursue.”
Automakers, Rhodes said, recognize the need to wall off some of their “mission critical” data, or protect customers from unwanted intrusions. GM has said it will share certain data with Google, but hasn’t gotten into specifics.
Polestar spokesman JP Canton said that especially sensitive “black box” data, such as vehicle speed, battery level, driving range, and charging rate will be used by Google or app developers only with a user’s permission, which an owner can revoke at any time. But Canton notes, for example, that sharing a car’s battery levels with Google Maps will help a driver get accurate route calculations and recommendations for charging stops along the route.
As ever, Rhodes said, there will be a trade-off between tech goodies that consumers demand, and privacy they’re willing to give up.
“We’ve already seen Google take a more-flexible approach in negotiating with automakers,” Rhodes says. “They know they want access to the car, customers, and data, so they’re willing to adapt to get it.”
This story was updated on 4 March 2020.