Google and Audi prepare connected-car partnership announcement

audi android 01Google and Audi will announce a tech/auto partnership at CES next week, according to the Wall Street Journal. (Subscription link.) Details will presumably be revealed in Las Vegas, but the leaked initiative is a clear stake in the ground: Google is squaring off against Apple‘s “iOS in the Car” program announced last summer. In that context, the connected car field can partly be framed as a replica of the Android vs. iOS mobile duopoly.

Car companies are wrestling with huge decisions as the market hurtles toward re-conceiving the automobile as a sophisticated mobile device. The OEMs are increasingly forced to define their vehicles that way as car buyers in showrooms place technology near the top of their required features. At stake for automakers is capturing a new wave of car buyers who want an uninterrupted mobile lifestyle while driving. At stake for radio (AM/FM, satellite, and Internet) is distribution territory in the car, once the sole province of terrestrial radio.

Who’s the developer?

One automaker decision is whether to develop their own in-car operating system, or partner with an OS provider. When the provider is Google or Apple, either of which would bring millions of locked-in users to the equation, the question might become why more car companies aren’t readying partnerships like this one. In the Google/Audio alliance, the tech giant brings extraordinary navigation features (maps, directions, and turn-by-turn GPS navigation), and is well-equipped to provide music natively via Google All Access, and by extension to all music services which distribute on the Android platform.

That’s not to say, though, that Google or Apple (or Microsoft, for that matter) would cover all the digital bases an OEM would want to cover. The standard connected car feature set includes diagnostic and security components (e.g. remote door lock checks and engine health checks) that are not part of Google’s core competency. The Google/Audi announcement is expected to include other tech providers (Nvidia is mentioned) to fill out the development package.

Perhaps an automaker’s main advantage of partnering with an established tech developer is shortening the product cycle. Car makers can no longer risk spending years to conceptualize and launch new models — at least, not when it comes to the car’s mobile technology.

Where is the dashboard?

A second, and arguably more basic decision faced by automakers is how to connect to put the Internet into their cars. The two product paths are these: provide an on-board Internet connection in the car, or don’t. The first option puts the infotainment controls directly on the digital dashboard. The second relies on the driver’s use of his or her smartphone — in effect, the phone is the car’s entertainment controller, even when it flings the screen controls to a dashboard monitor. Safety considerations push product development toward eyes-free, hands-free control, especially when commands are directed at a plugged-in smartphone.

That forked path appears to be defining the race of Google and Apple into the car. In a WSJ video interview, article author Neal E. Boudette delineated a strategic difference separating the two companies: “Google wants Android to be embedded in the car. Apple wants the iPhone to be the controller for your car.” But assuming the car is rolling along with an Internet connection provided one way or the other, the differences would melt into what could become a fairly standardized user experience in which voice commands and some form of tactile touch will start and stop radio listening, change stations, pull up playlists, etc..

More to come

The Google/Audi announcement will not be the only connected-car news to emanate from CES next week. A few automakers have exhibited in past years, but a larger flock is winging into the 2014 event. A CES press release announced that nine major OEMs will showcase in Vegas this year — Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes and Toyota.


Brad Hill