The car industry of the 21st century is facing a crisis. As Electric Vehicles (EVs) become more and more ubiquitous, the car is moving from mechanical to computerised at a rapid rate. Today, a good car not only has airbags, great mileage and legroom, but also comes with ‘smart’ features like advanced autopilot, infotainment systems and mobile apps. And as cars become smarter, there will undoubtedly be more features introduced. Since cars cannot be upgraded every year or two like smartphones this presents a major challenge for manufacturers.
Tesla’s solution is to go all in and control every single aspect of the car. And it has clearly worked. By treating the car as a smartphone with unlimited (so far) software support, the company has managed to ensure customers aren’t left out in the dark. No matter how old your Tesla, chances are you will still have the latest features. It’s a solution that almost no other brand has even considered. While GM, Ford, Toyota and BMW all support computerised systems like CarPlay/ Android Auto, they are still fundamentally the same automobiles from the 90’s. If these brands are to get into the EV business, they will have to rethink this strategy, and this is where Apple and Google come in. But to understand their role, we first need to understand the future of the market.
At CES 2020, Sony, a company with no relation to the automobile market decided to step in. They showed off their vision for what the car of the future should look like with the Vision S. While it was a concept that Sony never intended to bring to market, the idea is worth looking at. The Vision S allowed Sony to bring its mastery over areas like sensors, displays and camera technology to the car. Sony may have no experience in the automobile, but it does have plenty of experience in these areas. By marrying that expertise with a manufacturer like BMW, the car of the future could be exactly like a smartphone. This is where Apple and Google bring their expertise. They possess not just great software engineers, but they also have expertise in putting things like cameras and AI together as a package. Through their smartphones, operating systems, smart home technology and AI technology, these companies have developed all the basic technology that Sony demoed with the Vision S. Driver assistance technology is just AI, and Google’s AI project is clearly the smartest in the business. Waymo, the self-driving car project owned by Google parent company Alphabet is already in this business. The company didn’t build a car from scratch, it just repurposed existing models and added the sensors and tech required to make it smart. Likewise Apple’s much talked about Project Titan has been around for quite some time. There are already rumours that the company has shifted from creating a full-fledged car to a driving system it can license. It is natural then, that the two companies will create an EV platform, expanding the Android v iOS war to the car in the future.
The EV platform
If the car is to be treated like a smartphone, then there needs to be a basic platform baked into the car from the start. Think of how phones operated before iOS and Android. You could use them, but no two were the same. And in the smartphone and app era, that presented a huge challenge. It’s why Android and iOS are still the dominant operating systems today. By using Android as a backbone OS, smartphone manufacturers simply need to focus on the hardware, the one thing they are good at. By not having to create an operating system from scratch, they saved time and money, and were able to work off a common backbone. That’s where cars are heading. Today almost all major cars come with a basic infotainment system. And you don’t have to drive thousands of different models to know that some are really hard to navigate. It’s the main reason CarPlay and Android Auto became a reality. By simplifying the navigation of basic media, maps and other features, car manufacturers were able to focus on the hardware, while allowing consumers to access more advanced software features through a common software system. In return, Apple and Google get access to cars without having to go through the complex and expensive process of manufacturing one.
As we move towards EVs, this need is only going to increase. Tesla is the best example. The company has managed to create its own OS for the car, and made it easy to navigate. The costs may have set Musk and Tesla back a few years, but it is now truly something envious. The OS not only allows the car to be fully controlled by software, but it also allows Tesla to wirelessly push updates and introduce new features. It is a reality other carmakers will have to embrace. The only questions are how? Do they choose to go all in like Tesla and create their own OS from scratch? While I don’t doubt some manufacturers will try, I don’t think it will be a trend. As profits are slowly declining, most companies won’t see it as a good investment to set up an R&D team to create an OS from scratch. And if there are 15 different OS’ in the market, there is going to be a lot of confusion, chaos and patent infringements. The development will be slow, and without a doubt, it will take any manufacture a good decade to turn a profit on their investment. There isn’t really a situation any manufacturer will want to be in.
So it is natural that Apple and Google will step in, evolving CarPlay and Android Auto from infotainment systems to full operating systems. Having an EV platform that they license out will not only bring in a huge amount of cash, it will also allow the two companies to expose potential customers to their own software and services. This would also draw in more users to their platforms, giving them more incentive to invest in, and upgrade the OS on a yearly basis. On the downside, it would lead to a fractured OS deployment system, an issue that still plagues Android. While this is acceptable for a smartphone that lasts a few years, having vulnerabilities or old software in a car can be a little more worrying. It’s also going to be a massive challenge to deploy software updates to millions of cars globally, and ensure that they are up-to-date to fix any issues. Another downside would be the massive amounts of data collected. While no doubt the car will become a natural extension of Google Assistant/Siri, without proper safeguards hackers could access the location, usage and thousands of other data points. There’s also a great fear of hackers being able to remotely control cars. But if done right, the pros outweigh the cons by a huge margin.
It is clear then, that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will become CarOS (or whatever they end up calling the system). If the two companies are able to work with manufacturers like BMW to create an operating system, it would give Apple and Google unprecedented access to the car. You could summon your car, or lock/unlock it with Siri/Assistant, use Apple Music/YouTube Music when driving and have Apple Maps/Google Maps navigate you to the nearest charging station all without having to plug in your phone. A CarOS would allow you to seamlessly use your virtual assistant and access not just your media, but also basic car functions like air conditioning, lights and seat heaters. For Google, having access to the car as such a fundamental level would give it (unfortunately) more data to suck up. With Android Auto baked in, traffic data would become seamless and instant. It would also allow Google and Apple to instantly update their mapping systems. Similarly, CarOS could help ease the process of finding parking, and with Apple Pay/Google Pay paying for parking would become easier too. If you are in a new city, renting a car with such a platform baked in would be more than useful. Especially, if you don’t speak the local language. Google could instantly translate directions, and point out points of interest with a virtual display. The possibilities are endless.
And while consumers get all this, manufacturers can reap the benefits for a fraction of the cost. Sure, it would involve working more closely with Apple’s and Google’s engineers. That would be a tradeoff that would pay very well in the long run though. Tesla has already pioneered the vision, it’s only a matter of time before other companies adopt it. The car is heading the way of the smartphone, and having multiple operating systems is not something that worked then. It will definitely not work in the future.