Cars and Concepts

Google rolls out auto alliance to bring Android into car systems

SAN FRANCISCO (Bloomberg) -- That kid, the one in the back of the SUV with the iPad, he’s the automotive industry’s worst enemy. And he’s the reason a handful of the world’s biggest automakers have just partnered with Google Inc. to bring its Android software into vehicle infotainment systems.

Google unveiled the Open Automotive Alliance today, the company said in a blog post. A mix of technology and automotive companies, the group includes General Motors Co., Honda Motor Co., Audi AG, Hyundai Motor Co. and chipmaker Nvidia Corp. These companies look to take the Android software that has proven so popular in smartphones and tablets and customize it for cars.

Technology companies like Google and Nvidia will get a chance to place their wares into the hundreds of millions of cars sold each year. Meanwhile, the automakers will attempt to modernize the software inside of their vehicles and try and keep pace with a mobile-device onslaught that’s starting to make high-profit infotainment systems obsolete.

The theme of the car as a gadget is expected to dominate this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show starting today in Las Vegas.

Automakers typically work on two- to four-year cycles when designing their vehicles and tend to favor stable, proven technology over the latest and greatest gizmo. It’s a stance that makes sense given the safety and reliability concerns the automakers face. The rise of smartphones and tablets, however, and the rapid rate at which they’re advancing has put a great deal of pressure on these automotive traditions.

Consumers often turn, for example, to the mapping services found on their smartphones rather than a pricey built-in navigation system and similarly hand their children mobile devices filled with movies, games and apps rather than relying on a single DVD playing on back-seat screens.

Device threat

So far, the major response from carmakers to this digital-device threat has been to come up with custom in-car software systems.

Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft Corp. teamed to make MyFord Touch, which ties cars to mobile devices and allows for things like voice commands. Other carmakers use the QNX software acquired by BlackBerry Ltd., homegrown software or variants of the Linux operating system.

While this strategy helps companies create products that differ from rivals, it has resulted in a complex software market where third-parties have to write different applications for each carmaker -- a costly and time- consuming process.

There have already been attempts to solve this problem through other partnerships. In 2009, GM, BMW, Intel Corp. and others, for example, announced the Genivi Alliance. This is a stab at collaborating around the Linux operating system and supporting software that has had modest results.

Common roads

Android, a variant of Linux, has an advantage over other software because of its dominant place in the mobile-device industry. The electronics and computing supply chain throughout Asia, Europe and the U.S. tends to test and tune new components first for Android, providing intense interest and deep expertise around the software. For the automakers, this could translate into access to the latest and greatest technology and lowered costs for testing equipment.

Application makers are also used to creating software for Android. In addition, the likes of Audi, BMW, Kia Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. already use Google technology for search, maps and other functions.

Tesla Motors Inc. is among the cutting-edge automakers who have popularized this notion of a computer on wheels as the next evolution of the car. The company’s all-electric Model S sedan ships with a 17-inch touch screen and ready access to things like streaming radio. With a couple finger swipes, you can split the screen to have a massive top section for Google Maps and a lower section for music.

Car technology

Elsewhere in Silicon Valley, startups like CloudCar are working on providing a bridge between the technology and automotive realms.

The company has built a small computing device that can be plugged into a car to give it a modern infotainment system. The idea is that automakers could then upgrade this small unit as needed to bring new features to their vehicles.

In addition, software makers would have a common device to aim at with their applications. Ford has also set up a research center in Palo Alto, Calif., and open-sourced some of the innards of its cars’ control software to let people creating things like custom speedometers.

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