The battle of the dashboard: carmakers versus Big Tech
Whether it is developing self-driving cars, hosting vehicle data in the cloud or building infotainment systems destined for the dashboard, major US tech companies play a prominent role in the automotive industry. For car manufacturers, Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft are both valued partners and feared competitors. One thing is certain: Silicon Valley is riding with us from A to B.
This article in six points:
Anyone who thought the car industry could do without the technology of companies like Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft will be disappointed. With everything in and around cars revolving around software and data, car manufacturers are becoming increasingly dependent on these US Big Tech companies.
The advent of connected cars (cars connected to the internet) has created new, lucrative revenue models. All eyes are on the dashboard, where digital subscriptions, services and additional options are increasingly offered through the infotainment system.
The general expectation is that billions will still be made 'via the dashboard' this decade. And so there has been a big race in recent years between parties developing infotainment systems. Some of them stand out in terms of popularity: Android Auto, CarPlay and Alexa from Google, Apple and Amazon respectively can count on many millions of users.
For car manufacturers, a crucial question arises: do they opt for one of these proven systems, or do they put their money on building their own variant so that they do not have to share the revenue generated from it? Practice shows varied choices and a jumble of partnerships.
With Chinese cars making quite a splash in the European market, it is not inconceivable that other, as yet unknown infotainment systems will eventually gain a foothold here and compete with Google & Co.
The tech giants are among the biggest data vacuums in the world. The mere fact that these companies are so prominent in and around our cars will terrify privacy-adepts. The deeper they get into your car, the more likely they are to find out more about (the state of) your vehicle and your driving style.
It's out together, home together. Because these days, just try to break away from Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft. Not only do our computers and phones run on the operating systems of these companies, their services and products constantly pervade our lives. Indeed, most people rely on these four US multinationals for mail, payments, file storage, streaming services and navigation. In numerous domains, their dominance is obvious: Amazon, for instance, is the world's largest web shop besides a lot of others, and Google's search engine is still the world's number one search engine.
Whatever the tech giant, ease of use is almost always guaranteed: call it a comfortable hold. Even if you don't ask for it at all, these juggernauts impose themselves on you. Or to your children. For example, in the education. Not surprisingly, they have also long since become indispensable in our vehicles. These days, it is the rule rather than the exception that as soon as you get into your car, Silicon Valley is riding with you.
In this final article in a four-part series on software in and around vehicles, we look at the role of Big Tech. And to get straight to the point: some car companies are becoming increasingly dependent on the corporates from California, which, one way or the other, are more than happy to share in the richly-stocked purse of vehicle data. Let's start with a tour of the big players.
Microsoft used to focus on software at vehicles, but nowadays mainly on cloud and other types of software services for car manufacturers and related parties, including Volkswagen, Bosch and TomTom. In other words, the company is taking care of the endless streams of data that connected cars generate.
CarPlay & Android Auto(motive)
Apple - surely not originally a car manufacturer - has been working on a much-discussed self-driving car (However, if that vehicle actually gets there in 2026 after much delay, it will be far less autonomous than once intended). For now, however, the company is best known for CarPlay: the app that allows you to continue using all the other apps on your iPhone via Apple's voice assistant Siri and your car's dashboard. While you're driving, of course. The latest version of CarPlay can 'take over' the entire dashboard, including the instrument panel. Having Apple unlock and lock your car, meanwhile, is also possible.
To exactly all that is also Android Auto in it, Google's app that has been installed or downloaded on more than five billion(!) phones (the actual number of users is considerably lower). CarPlay and Android Auto barely diverge in terms of functionality and quality.
However, Google goes one step further. Not only are Google's key licensed apps installed by default in the infotainment system of many cars (Google Automotive Services, collectively available under the name 'Google built-in'), with Android Automotive the company proposes for free a complete, dashboard-focused operating system available that does not rely on a smartphone, but runs within a vehicle itself.
Whereas use of Android Auto is a consumer issue, the choice for Android Automotive lies with car manufacturers, and that already in the development phase of the vehicle. An asset of Android Automotive is that it always functions the same under the skin, but can take on the desired interface (look) like a chameleon for any car brand.
Confusingly, opting for Android Automotive does not automatically mean opting for Google built-in. It is mainly a basic layer of software on top of which various infotainment systems can function. Consumers in most cases have the freedom to choose their preferred infotainment system, for example CarPlay. In that case, Google lets Apple override it in the dashboard to some extent. Still, you would then be heading towards your destination not just with one of the two, but actually with both tech giants on board.
Tesla does not allow Apple and Google infotainment systems in its cars. The brand uses its own advanced system. That an IT developer has bent over backwards to allow Android Auto and Apple CarPlay nevertheless To be able to integrate into Tesla's, and there is also a lot of enthusiasm for it among Tesla owners, just shows how popular those apps are. Almost all other car brands do allow Android Auto and CarPlay. Toyota eventually did too. Until 2019, the Japanese brand kept Apple and Google out of business because of privacy concerns.
Also worth mentioning regarding Google: with subsidiary Waymo the company owns the world's first self-driving taxi service. Big Tech is betting full steam ahead and competing fiercely on the development of autonomous vehicles. After all, that is where the future lies, is the firm belief.
Amazon doesn't want to be left behind in this field either, so it took on the developer of self-driving cars Zoox about. In view of the millions of parcels shipped daily from Amazon's distribution centres, it also bought the maker of electric delivery vans Rivian up. Like an octopus, Amazon spreads its tentacles at all levels of the automotive industry: like Microsoft, the company provides crucial cloud services to car manufacturers. It also has far-reaching partnerships with quite a few of them. For instance with Stellantis (parent company of 16 brands), assisting it in developing even smarter cars.
Amazon has never developed a smartphone, nor an app like Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. On the other hand, the company is throwing via the mini device Echo Auto its voice assistant Alexa in the fight to still provide motorists with the same kind of services as its competitors. Like Google built-in, Alexa is built into numerous vehicles as standard. Amazon wants to expand Alexa in cars into a full-fledged infotainment system as soon as possible. In some cars, you can already use it to control the temperature, dim the lights and - via a connection with Amazon Pay - even pay for refuelling with it.
Especially with dashboard screens getting bigger and bigger, and which in the near future will increasingly even become the entire width of the car will cover, many motorists can already no longer imagine driving without virtual support. Provided you don't go crazy with the (switch off) voice assistant that thinks it's being spoken to even when it's not, you can command lustily. ''Siri, play ACDC'', ''Alexa, tell me the latest news'', ''Google, call my mother and navigate to the nearest charging station''. One thing you know for sure: you always have the most up-to-date navigation. You can't always rely on that with built-in navigation systems.
Going back for a moment to about 13 years ago, when the first touchscreen in-dash infotainment systems of cars appeared. Back then, such a system was little more than a screen with limited capabilities. Apple and Google, with their first smartphones, soon showed that they were much better at developing operating systems for touchscreen devices that worked on the basis of apps. They also quickly gained an advantage, because whereas smartphones are developed relatively quickly, the car industry has much longer product cycles.
For Apple and Google, and later Amazon, it was a no brainer to shift their attention to the automotive industry as well. After all, it was long since clear at the time that connected cars were going to provide new, lucrative revenue models. Including by offering all kinds of digital subscriptions, services and additional options (more horsepower, better steering, a heated steering wheel, etc.) in the dashboard.
What was considered future music at the time is now still only in its infancy. Car manufacturers still achieve only a few percent of their sales 'through the dashboard'. However, they are expected to make many billions within a few years. For car companies, this is crucial because electric cars are not yet making very large profits.
So the battle over the dashboard has in fact been raging for over a decade (see this article from Wired from 2012), but has only intensified in recent years. The competition is likely to gain momentum all the way through as more artificial intelligence and augmented reality-applications be integrated into infotainment systems.
From the outset, at least for car companies, a crucial question on, one that continues to this day: remain autonomous as a car manufacturer What about the dashboard, and do I develop my own, possibly inferior infotainment system at great expense and at the risk of all kinds of setbacks, which will have to be constantly updated for many years to come? Or do I refrain from reinventing the wheel and opt for a proven and, for many, familiar system from a tech giant, where I have little to worry about in terms of development, but where that one company emphatically interposes itself between me and my customers and runs off with revenues that could actually have been mine?
Car companies have different strategies in this regard and almost all of them have changed course at some point over the years. First they focus on the development of their own system only to abandon it in the end, or they rely on another party only to realise later that they really want to control the dashboard - that increasingly crucial part of the car.
Learning the hard way
With its own infotainment system One.Infotainment the Volkswagen Group belongs to the latter category. Developing its own software across the board and setting up its own app store, however, proved to be an issue for Volkswagen from the outset learning the hard way. Deadlines are not being met and budgets are being exceeded, with the most recent result being that at Cariad, VW's entirely software-focused subsidiary, next year 2000 employees flying out.
To the dismay of countless car owners, General Motors announced earlier this year to stop supporting Android Auto and Apple CarPlay for upcoming plug-in cars. Reams of criticism were heaped on the US group and calls for it to reconsider that decision were loud. However, GM is determined to come up with a new proprietary software platform called Ultifi to tap a large untapped source of income, without having to share that income with others.
Ironically, both Ultifi and One.Infotainment do rely on Android, and so Google is not completely shown the door. It just goes to show how dependent Google has made some car manufacturers. (For the record: Android is a variant of Linux, which forms a family of open-source operating systems. Linux and other open-source software are featured in the automotive industry much used. While Google discloses Android's source code, it independently decides which way the system goes and develops each new version on its own. Incidentally, one of the most widely used operating systems from the opposite, closed-source category is QNX from Canada's BlackBerry. That's in hundreds of millions of vehicles worldwide).
Jumble of partnerships
General Motors' radical move is a gamble that many other conglomerates dare not take, afraid of seeing car sales fall sharply in the short term. And so come more and more automakers out with Google in particular. It was long assumed that automakers would be reluctant to partner with this company, as it would mean losing control over the cars' data, but those days seem to be over. Among others Polestar, Volvo, Renault, Nissan and Honda already chose Android Automotive for their new electric models, including the licensed suite of apps (Google built-in) for which they apparently have to pay tens of millions of euros annually.
Others opt for a kind of hybrid solution: thus chooses Mercedes for integrating Google Maps into its own software. Still others are more cautious: consider BMW, which is willing to venture to Automotive, but refrains from Google's apps, knowing that that option gives Google access to a wealth of (personal) data, and concessions regarding the privacy of its customers are inevitable in the process. Meanwhile, BMW bases its next-generation voice assistant then again on Alexa's technology.
All in all, Big Tech and the car industry enter into a tangle of partnerships with each other, with car companies sometimes betting on several horses at once. Consumers looking to delve into this will soon find themselves unable to see the wood for the trees, also because the technology used within a brand often varies from model to model.
Back to Google for a moment, as not everyone is happy with the company's terms and conditions: for example, the German competition watchdog (the Bundeskartellamt) recently a investigation initiated on suspicion of unfair competition. Google is willing to let car manufacturers get a piece of the advertising revenue generated from the use of its infotainment system, but only if they set Google's apps in the dashboard as default when the car is first used, and they only allow Google's voice assistant. Moreover, the company only offers its apps bundled, making it even harder for other infotainment system providers to get in.
The situation is quite similar to Google's search engine, which stubbornly kept putting Google's own products at the top in search results, favouring them. For this, the company was repeatedly reprimanded by the European Commission.
Scepticism over privacy
Car manufacturers, meanwhile, can do something about it too, but the tech giants discussed in this article are, of course, some of the world's biggest data suckers. It's no higher maths: the more people use their services, the more data they rake in, and the more there is to earn through user analytics and targeted reselling. In their bid to engage as many people as possible, they offer 'solutions' for every aspect of life. Mobility is an essential part of our daily existence, so it was a foregone conclusion that with the advent of connected cars, Big Tech would pounce on the automotive industry. And would do everything possible to benefit from the predicted data bonanza that so characterises this industry.
Well, with the presence of Big Tech in and around connected cars, is the privacy of motorists (and fellow passengers) guaranteed? The mere fact that these companies play such a prominent role will immediately scare away privacy-adepts (will there be a choice for them any time soon?). Good promises to their customers notwithstanding (especially Apple profiles strongly as a privacy-conscious company), since their inception these multinationals have been fined time and again worldwide for violating or disregarding consumers' privacy. So scepticism is in order.
All the more so because, at least in the past, their voice assistants turned out to be listeners who were serious infringement on user privacy made. And even if you indicate, for example, that you do not want to share your location data (a setting that by default is usually 'on'), you may just find that your whereabouts mapped to death, as was the case a few years ago research showed. Incidentally, you can stop sharing your location, but if you then pay at a gas station or roadside restaurant using Amazon Pay, Apple Pay or Google Pay, they can guess how you got there.
In addition, the deeper Google & Co nestle into your car, the more likely they are to find out more about (the state of) your vehicle and your driving style. Even car manufacturers - who care deeply about the Maintain control over vehicle data - are not keen on this and will probably (want to) reach agreements on this. Mercedes claims that despite its collaboration with Google, it is firmly in control of all data.
But what if that is not the case (with other brands)? Possible data transmission to the United States, moreover, remains an issue. European privacy regulators are concerned on the Data Privacy Framework, the current data transfer treaty between Europe and the US. There is almost always (some) transfer when you use technology from a party that is physically based in the US and also processes data there. Even if data remains in Europe, it could still be accessed by US authorities or secret services. Inspection requests, whether under high pressure or not, are made by companies almost always honoured. Incidentally, the links between Big Tech (including social media) and the intelligence community always close has been.
It sounds a bit dickish against this backdrop, but the least you can do as a driver is to check the privacy settings of your app or infotainment system (Amazon, Apple, Google) and tick or untick whatever you feel most comfortable with. Unfortunately, buying a vintage car and getting away from all the digital hypes in one fell swoop is a realistic option for hardly anyone.
Finally, while the vast majority of people in Europe may use Android Auto and Apple CarPlay (and, to a lesser extent, Amazon's Alexa for now), continued dominance on our continent may not be entirely a foregone conclusion. China has managed to keep US tech giants relatively small domestically with all sorts of regulatory hurdles. This has created an entirely separate market for digital services there, including in the field of - heavily government-subsidised - automotive industry. The most widely used infotainment system in cars in China since 2015 CarLife of Baidu, in many ways Google's Chinese counterpart.
However, the most formidable competitor from China could be Flyme Auto can be. That new and fully in-car-integrated infotainment system is reportedly already so advanced that it has Android Auto and Apple CarPlay right there looks old-fashioned. The electronics company that built Flyme Auto, Meizu, is now owned by Chinese car group Geely, which also owns Volvo and Polestar. Those brands may have put their money on Google, but with Chinese cars gaining a foothold in the European market, it is not inconceivable that Flyme Auto - or yet other competing infotainment systems from the Far East - could eventually gain a foothold here too. If so, another big battle for the dashboard could just present itself. And, parallel to this, the question of whether or not (personal) data of European motorists is being channelled to Beijing would probably become even more pressing.
Next time: connected cars and spying.