Google set to collide with car industry

The automotive industry has long lagged behind the consumer electronics market. Naturally, this presents an opportunity for Google to step in and innovate.

The pace of consumer electronic innovation has created a discontinuity in the automobile industry. The cause is the estimated 800 million smartphones and tablets that will be purchased in 2012 that have changed consumer expectations and behavior, raising the bar that automotive companies need to meet for in-vehicle-infotainment (IVI).

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Android joins the 'internet of things'

Comparatively, the auto industry ships about 60 million cars per year and up until recently most IVI systems were proprietary closed development projects. How can automotive IVI systems developers compete with the significantly larger scale and diversity of open Android developers?

Just a decade ago car manufacturers were able to deliver a premium IVI experience with a 5 CD changer, a Bluetooth phone interface and integrated GPS navigation and maybe a subscription telematics safety system like Onstar.

Then the iPod arrived on the scene, replacing the CD changer and forcing manufacturers to share their brand with Apple and accommodate it with a proprietary dock. Some car manufacturers took the opportunity to innovate with access to iPod content through various console and steering wheel controls.

But consumer electronic smartphone and tablet innovation brought more change, this time by an order of magnitude with which the manufacturers haven’t been able to keep pace. The a priori solution would appear to be an Android smartphone plugged into the car to replace the IVI controller, known in the industry as a "headunit." But it is not the solution that the automotive industry is ready to adopt because a smartphone/dumb-car IVI solution does not enable automotive manufacturers to differentiate their brands or integrate multifunctional communications and multiuser requirements, nor has it been tested to meet the high product safety and liability obligations of the auto industry.

To keep pace with consumer electronic innovation and reduce development costs, the automotive industry is moving in the direction of open innovation with a project called GENIVI that is intended to create an open source automotive IVI development community. The goal is to share the software development costs of 95% of the IVI functions and allow the auto manufacturer to differentiate their offerings to match a brand with the last 5%. The solution may still appear to be an Android smartphone, but much of the auto industry and Intel and Samsung are focusing the industry’s public attention on a Linux variant called Tizen that meets the GENIVI specification. The industry is using Tizen as a non-exclusive example to test the open innovation model and the underlying economic model.

The IVI solutions need multifunctional communications to connect the car to the cloud for many unrelated functions, such as telematics (Onstar), navigation, the logging of diagnostics, connecting to Pandora, and connecting telephone calls. IVI becomes the "cloud in the car" connecting passengers’ smartphones and tablets with IVI features and other cloud and internet services. At the same time, the IVI system must prioritize sensor and camera information so that driver alerts such as backup cameras are not delayed or flicker, lest they cause an accident or injury. Product safety and liability are important considerations in building the IVI systems of the future. If a driver's rear-view display freezes for two seconds, resulting in personal injury, the auto manufacturer will bear the liability. Potential consequences of driver distraction from the user interface to the IVI system makes the generic smartphone UI and access to apps such as Angry Birds inappropriate.

If Android were adopted, the auto manufacturers would get the best of mobile open innovation, including a fantastic mapping and navigational system, and Google would gain the advantage of understanding the driver’s mission. Neither can pass on this opportunity, especially the auto manufacturers because they don’t have to share the brand with Apple. Odds are that Google and the auto manufacturers are working on this right now and the real question is when the Android-powered car will be announced.

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