Apple and Android Are Finally Shouldering Their Way Into Cars

Automakers are losing their stranglehold on pricey, often optional navigation and infotainment systems.

4 min read

Apple and Android Are Finally Shouldering Their Way Into Cars
Photo: Apple

Apple and Android together sell 95 percent of the smartphones in the U.S., but for years they’d been largely locked out of the automobile. Now suddenly nearly every major automaker is preparing to share a ride with Apple Car Play, Android Auto or both.

These systems link your smartphone and car to manage calls, navigation, music and apps, using familiar Siri or Google voice commands and the cars’ touchscreen or physical controls. 

It’s a revolution not only for drivers but for automakers, which are threatened with the loss of their  traditional stranglehold on pricey, often optional navigation and infotainment systems. The market has spoken: Consumers expect their favorite smartphone environment and connected lives—contacts, music, social media, apps—to follow them wherever they go.

“With Apple and Android being the dominant, intuitive platforms people use every day, they’re not going to want to be closed off from those in the car,” said Steve Cannon, chief executive of Mercedes-Benz USA. 

He says that’s especially true for Millennials, the age 18-to-34 demographic that will soon surpass the Baby Boomers as America’s largest living generation, according to Pew Research. “If you’re not keeping pace with connected cars and autonomous functions, you’re not going to connect with these younger buyers,” says Cannon. Mercedes’ fast-expanding lineup will begin rolling out Apple Car Play on select 2016 models. 

The global rollout of Apple and Android has been slower than expected, with delays on early-adopter rides, including the Hyundai Sonata sedan and tech-laden Volvo XC90 SUV. But by year’s end about 1.5 million 2016 models from Hyundai, General Motors, Ford, Audi and others will ship with one or the other system, according to IHS Automotive. By 2020, up to 40 million cars will hit the road with Apple or Android.

Before long, automakers will be forced to support both systems. This fall General Motors will offer 28 different 2016 models from Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GM that are compatible with either system. Ford’s latest Sync 3 system also plays both sides of the connected street.

“You don’t want to go to market with just one, because you’ll alienate a good portion of consumers,” said Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst for infotainment and human-machine interface at IHS. 

It isn't as easy as it may seem. Automakers must smoothly integrate Apple and Android with existing hardware and largely Blackberry QNX operating systems, even as they roll out evolving generations of myriad car and truck models. It took Hyundai 18 months to engineer Apple Car Play into its latest Sonata, working to ensure that bugs were stamped out before cars went to customers. Audi’s smartly designed MMI infotainment unit doesn’t use the touchscreen for which Apple and Android are designed, so the company had to rework its rotary-and-touchpad console controls to work properly.

And it all has to work every time if you don’t want to face the wrath of Consumer Reports or J.D. Power and Associates. In high-profile consumer surveys in recent years, owner complaints over cumbersome or glitchy infotainment systems—such as Ford’s vexing Microsoft-based Sync and MyFord Touch units—have dinged the ratings of otherwise-acclaimed cars. 

There’s been another reason for automaker caution, as first reported by Automotive News: Potential product liability. Automakers are accustomed to sharing consumer and regulatory liability with major suppliers; think airbags, tires and the like. But Apple and Android, in classic Silicon Valley style, would prefer to drop full liability in automakers’ laps, allowing them to blame carmakers for glitches and skate away with reputations and wallets intact. 
Potential driver distraction is another major issue. To help keep drivers focused, the phone’s screen goes dark to keep drivers from sneaking a peek. Between simulations at its lab and actual driving on its devilish Milford Road Course in suburban Detroit, GM is evaluating the workloads and distractions of Apple and Android apps.

“We’re holding new apps to the same standards for distraction as our embedded systems,” says Dan Kinney, user experience director for GM’s global connected systems.

Yet if automakers are reluctant to let Apple and Android onboard, they’re no longer showing it, even if they end up sharing dashboard space; giving Google and Apple valuable access to drivers and data; or selling fewer of their own gizmos and gadgets.

“Some of our navigation or COMAND systems may come under pressure, but we don’t feel threatened,” Mercedes’ Cannon says. Our systems just won’t be entirely homegrown anymore. The other strategy would be to ignore it, but that would miss the mark with buyers.”

Even so, automakers haven’t given up on the battle. Those homegrown audiovisual systems environments have not only brought profits, they’ve also been a signature of the car, the brand and the design style.  Think the sleek integration and eye-popping graphics of Audi’s MMI system, which just seem so, well, Audi.

Some automaking giants will continue to develop systems and flex market muscle to promote their own technology, Boyadjis says. Toyota is considering adopting Ford’s SmartDeviceLink, an open-source version of Ford’s AppLink system. Though every 2016 Ford car and truck will be compatible with Apple and Android, it continues to develop its own similar AppLink.

Certainly, phone-based systems offer huge advantages: One driver, one phone that you already own anyway. One WiFi connection or cellular plan, rather than a second system in the car. Don’t forget instant upgrades: It’s far easier to beam the latest update of Google Maps into your car than to upgrade an embedded navigation system over the air. Processors and WiFi networks advance at silicon-chip speed compared to the roughly five-to-seven-year product cycles of new car designs, cars that the average owner now hangs onto a new car for more than 10 years. Although upgrades of in-car software are becoming commonplace, including via WiFi connections, carmakers are experimenting with switchable plug-and-play hardware as well.

Yet the template is for cars to continue to offer both “built in” and “brought in” functions.

“There’s still room for both,” Kinney said, citing situations in which a driver’s phone dies, is lost, or where phone connectivity is poor or nonexistent. “If you have a restaurant date in your calendar, or a message to meet you at a bar, Google has a good idea you’re going there, and could just tee up the navigation system for a one-tap set up.”

All the built-in infotainment systems on offer, together with those that hitch a ride into the car on your smartphone, can be a bit distracting. So as drivers flirt with Siri, listen to texts and make restaurant reservations, it’s no surprise that other parts of the system are mitigating the problem by acting electronic safety watchdogs--collision mitigation, pedestrian-and-animal detection, adaptive steering systems and all the other robocar magic.

“We’re seeing technology solve the problems that technology creates,” Boyadjis says. 

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