The modern car is often described as a smartphone on wheels, and Google is taking that analogy a step further.
The tech behemoth is rolling out Android Automotive, an open-source and customizable operating system that brings Google's suite of entertainment services — email, navigation, Internet search and voice assistant — to the vehicle dashboard.
The platform is a departure from those automakers have historically offered, which have tended to be underpowered and rarely updated. Some luxury automakers, such as Mercedes-Benz, are developing their own bespoke, robust-featured systems, but doing so at a significant investment.
Google is instead offering an off-the-shelf solution that eliminates the need for a proprietary operating system and custom applications.
Android Automotive also offers access to an ecosystem of third-party apps and regular over-the-air security updates.
Volvo affiliate Polestar debuted Android Automotive last year on its all-electric Polestar 2 fastback. Volvo then brought the system to its XC40 Recharge P8 battery-electric compact crossover.
Broader adoption is coming. Several other automakers, including Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Renault, have said they will adopt Android Automotive for future models.
The user-friendly system essentially turns a vehicle's head unit into a smart device. Signing into a Google account on the vehicle's infotainment display ports over the user's Google apps and data to the vehicle.
It also hooks into vehicle systems, allowing occupants to adjust cabin temperature, lighting and driving settings from the infotainment screen or via voice.
Android Automotive "offers very real and clear advantages over traditional infotainment systems," AutoPacific analyst Ed Kim said. "The level of Google account and feature integration into Volvo's infotainment brings a level of convenience, intuitiveness and ease of use not seen in any other luxury brands' competing systems."
In the case of the Polestar 2, Android Automotive runs on an 11-inch high-resolution display that anchors the dashboard. The screen, in portrait orientation, is split into four theme-based cards that can be customized with apps. Vehicle settings and driver profiles are accessed from the top of the screen, while the climate-control setting is at the bottom. As with a smartphone, notifications can be accessed by swiping down from the top of the screen.
For Volvo, Android Automotive represents "the first time we could have something that continues to evolve," said Volvo Cars Product Manager Fredrik Hulth. "We get Android updates, we get Google services updates, but our development teams are also continuing to add functionality."