Android Auto architect Brenner sees a 'virtuous cycle' in common car software

Brenner: "We think that just like the phone industry in 2008, adoption of an open software interface in the auto industry is going to create a virtuous cycle." Photo credit: Joe Wilssens

DETROIT -- In the days before Google launched the Android operating system in 2008, engineers had to rewrite the code for Google Maps dozens of times for different smartphones from makers such as Nokia, Motorola and BlackBerry. 

It was a hassle, but Android changed all that.

Andy Brenner, product manager for Android Auto, now sees the Silicon Valley giant’s smartphone interface having the same effect on cars. By helping customers use hot new apps in their cars without forcing developers to rewrite their code, he said, automakers can deliver a seamless experience that helps them sell cars.

“We think that just like the phone industry in 2008, adoption of an open software interface in the auto industry is going to create a virtuous cycle,” Brenner said.

Google started work on Android Auto in 2013, around the time that archrival Apple Inc. announced the project that would become CarPlay. Android Auto, which taps into a smartphone’s cellular connection and roughly mirrors its display on the navigation screen of a car, was first available last summer on the Hyundai Sonata sedan.

Along with Hyundai, General Motors, Honda and Volkswagen Group have been the most enthusiastic adopters. Android Auto is currently shipping in 10 brands of cars, Brenner said, and that number will increase to 20 by the end of 2016.

“To us, it seems slow,” Brenner said, though Google understands why.

“In the auto industry, you really have to get things right,” he said. “It’s a very different context, so we’ve learned a lot from the auto industry in making sure what we have here is automotive grade.”

Of the 1 million apps in the Google Play store, roughly 500 have been cleared for use with Android Auto. Brenner said all third-party apps undergo testing to ensure that they are not distracting for drivers, but automakers have freedom within Android Auto to include apps that they develop themselves.

Brenner said his group is working on more features for Android smartphones, such as the ability to automatically customize a car’s settings by detecting the smartphone of the person in the driver’s seat. He said Google is also working on using Android smartphones as credentials for keyless entry.

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