Heading Towards Connected Home Vehicles

11th March, 2016 by

In a world where we’re constantly connected, why aren’t our domestic vehicles online?

It’s a curious fact that domestic vehicles have been largely overlooked in our race for universal connectivity. While cafés and B&Bs often boast free Wi-Fi, and mobile networks compete to provide the widest levels of 4G coverage nationwide, cars have remained largely off the radar. Honourably excepting satellite navigation systems and the limited functionalities offered by Bluetooth, cars have remained resolutely offline and unconnected.

The world’s car manufacturers are now rushing to catch up, but their efforts are likely to fall by the wayside as Apple and Android take their global battle for supremacy onto the road. A recent study from Juniper Research has suggested that the adoption of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will inflate the in-vehicle infotainment market’s value tenfold – to $600 million – by the end of this decade. With BlackBerry’s QNX also in development, the future of vehicle communications is exciting, yet strangely unknown.

Today’s iPhone and iPad owners accept that they can’t use Android-exclusive apps, and vice versa. It’s currently unclear how vehicle manufacturers will integrate incompatible (and competing) platforms into their cars; it’s hard to see any exclusivity deals being done whereby owners of a particular marque can only sync their phones if they’re Android-powered. Potentially, every new car that rolls off the production line may need several different operating systems, either pre-installed or available for download. That’s a choice that hasn’t been extended to consumers before – nobody buys a blank smartphone from a shop and then decides whether to install iOS, Android or Windows on it. Even if purchasers of a new car could specify their preferred OS, it’s as yet unspecified what would happen if an Android user sold their Auto-compatible vehicle to an Apple devotee…

Regardless of how this schism is resolved, it seems probable that on-board systems will take over from smartphone-powered technology. That will involve building on platforms like Vauxhall’s OnStar system, which turns cars into 4G Wi-Fi hotspots with live telephone support and a touchscreen interface. Even as part of the huge General Motors family (which includes brands in Australia, China, America and Europe), OnStar’s proprietary nature will never achieve the market penetration of a universal platform like Android Auto. Ford’s SYNC system is now compatible with Amazon’s voice-controlled Echo platform, but you can expect the latter to take over from the former within a few years.

So what do we know about the automotive versions of today’s smartphone operating systems? CarPlay displays recognisable Apple icons on a touchscreen, but it still relies on an iPhone being present, while future iterations should allow services and functionalities to be downloaded and accessed directly through the dashboard. CarPlay will probably retain its current Siri voice control and Apple Maps sat-nav, with text message dictation plus compatibility with streaming services like Audible and Spotify. However, take-up remains very patchy: only 14 of the car manufacturers currently retailing in the UK have any CarPlay compatible models in their line-ups.

It seems almost inevitable that Android will become the largest player in the automotive connectivity market, mirroring its global superiority in the smartphone sector. There are 27 manufacturer logos on the Android website with a UK presence (including niche brands like Abarth and Infiniti), though Google isn’t as open about specific model compatibility as Apple. Apple fans would also point out that Android Auto copies CarPlay’s functionalities in the same way Android occasionally apes iOS, with spoken text messages and turn-by-turn navigation alongside the ubiquitous apps for Skype and Spotify.

It’s worth bearing in mind that CarPlay and Auto are aimed as much at passengers as drivers, who still have to concentrate on piloting their vehicles. Even this may become a thing of the past, though, as Google’s self-driving cars have already completed a million miles of autonomous journeys. Google is confident it can transform cars into self-propelling shuttles, leaving the ‘driver’ free to browse Android Auto’s curated apps. It seems the war for infotainment superiority is about to move into a higher gear…

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