Road test for apps

Google has just turned the ignition on the latest vehicle for its Android mobile software: your car. Ben Sillis reports

Spotify is built into new Volvos

Spotify is built into new Volvos

There are already more than a billion devices running Google’s Android smartphone software, and now the Silicon Valley giant is working on the next billion – but these won’t fit in your pocket, or even your house.

At January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Google, Audi, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai and chip manufacturer Nvidia announced their plans to establish the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), a consortium to lead development of Android-controlled cars, similar to the Open Handset Alliance of Android smartphone manufacturers established by Google. In other words, if the search giant has its way, the car is soon going to be at one with your phone.

That might sound trivial at first, especially if you’ve never had to pair your phone with a Bluetooth speaker while driving, but the ramifications are huge. You see, apart from beeping at you when you’re about to reverse park into a bollard, cars in 2014 still aren’t particularly smart. Most don’t tell you when you’re running low on petrol, give you a heads up if there’s a gas stop nearby with reasonable prices, or provide on-the-fly weather alerts.

The OAA could change all that: the alliance states that it is working on better integrating Android phones with the car, as well as bringing Android to the infotainment system software in your dash. The first cars will go on sale by the end of the year.

“The car is the ultimate mobile computer,” says Jen-Hsun Huang, President and Chief Executive Officer of Nvidia. “With onboard supercomputing chips, futuristic cars of our dreams will no longer be science fiction. The OAA will enable the car industry to bring these amazing cars to market faster.”

Ford’s Sync service

Ford’s Sync service

The car as a platform
If you own a smartphone you’ll already know how much potential the car has waiting to be unlocked with the right fob. With an Internet connection to your car you can do everything from the latest traffic report to an instant price comparison of petrol prices around you – or just have your email messages read out to you. With superfast 4G on the rise, you could even stream HD movies to the backseat to keep the kids quiet, or leave them playing Angry Birds on a screen inside the headrest.

The challenge is to bring all of these options to a car, any car. Google’s smart play in forming the OAA is to treat the car as a platform, just like a phone or a PC. Some car manufacturers, such as Kia and Renault, already offer Android-powered infotainment systems, while Parrot sells Android satnavs which run a selection of apps. However, their piecemeal approach means that they don’t all run the same software, and developers will have to do more work for each machine they want to be on.

It’s a bit like phones before the dawn of the smartphone era – your Nokia came with Snake, but your Sony Ericsson didn’t because it ran its own proprietary software, and so on. But if a car ran standard software, in the same way laptops run Windows or most smartphones support Android, that problem goes away.

With much of the weight of the industry behind it, the OAA could make that happen, making even powerful smart car solutions like Ford’s Sync seem quaint and restrained by comparison. Wouldn’t you prefer it that your car worked with any phone, and vice versa?

Look ma, no hands!
Getting all of Android’s million-plus apps running inside your car isn’t the only challenge however, they also need to be accessible. Most have been designed to work on small touchscreens a foot or so from your eyes. Jabbing at individual menu options while driving on the highway is not what you should be doing.

But these apps are what people want. A recent survey by IDC Research found that three quarters of drivers would prefer to use their current mobile devices to connect to in-car services. The OAA’s real challenge is to create an environment where enough of these must-have apps are accessible with nothing more than your voice. That way, sending text messages and emails by dictation or asking where the nearest truck stop is becomes no more dangerous than just talking to the person sitting next to you.

Google’s in a good place to pull this off. It has dabbled in the area before with a previous Android app designed for cars, while its Google Now service on Android lets you request all kinds of information hands-free. The OAA also says it’s been in contact with government agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the US to ensure safety. “Working toward a common ecosystem benefits driver safety above all,” explains Ricky Hudi, Head of Electrics Development at Audi. But Google isn’t the only company taking this approach.

Siri, turn the engine on
Apple has big plans for the car too. With hundreds of millions of devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch) out there running iOS software, it’s also in a position to create the de facto standard for smart cars. In this case, that’s iOS in the Car, which was unveiled at its Worldwide Developers Conference in summer 2013.

With an iPhone plugged in, drivers can tell Siri, the iPhone voice assistant, to send and text messages or emails, create calendar events and reminders, activate turn-by-turn navigation and more. The new Siri Eyes Free mode meanwhile keeps an iPhone’s display off during tasks to avoid distraction. Partners include the likes of Chrysler and Jaguar.

In some ways, iOS in the Car already is the new standard. While the first cars with Android integration won’t arrive until year end, Chevrolet has already brought an iPhone-friendly vehicle to market.

With any luck though, we won’t have to choose. Google and Apple will dominate the smartphone market for years to come, that much is clear: in the meantime, that means that if car manufacturers can work with two platforms, that’s most bases covered. Honda’s Acura line already integrates with Siri, and now it’s joined the OAA. Hyundai has also expressed interest in iOS in the Car too.

All that leaves is the high-end sports car manufacturers, and even they may not be left far behind in the dust: Apple vice-president Eddy Cue, who announced iOS in the Car, also happens to sit on the board of Ferrari. It will be interesting to see what happens there. “Siri, make me look effortlessly cool…”