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The Connected Cars War: Apple, Google Duke it Out

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At the Geneva Motor Show last week, Apple officially launched its CarPlay product to some excitement. Apple has enlisted a number of big-name auto manufacturers into the program, so you can expect to see CarPlay in your new vehicle sometime soon.

But what's new here? At first glance, this is just a computer company providing its interface expertise to car companies, just like the deal between Microsoft and Ford that was announced way back at CES 2007. The list of features -- entertainment, maps, messaging, voice control -- looks similar. So what's different, and why is Apple coming along with this seven years later?

The likely reason is that it took some time for auto companies to realize that their traditional approach to in-car electronics was doomed.

When in-car entertainment consisted of a combined radio and CD player, the car companies were within their comfort zone. Entertainment was just another module to be plugged in on the production line. But as soon as the dashboard started to contain software, the car companies obviously struggled. The navigation and entertainment systems hardwired into cars were -- and still are -- a whole lot less functional than the equivalent apps available on smartphones and tablets.

The Ford arrangement with Microsoft brought in outside expertise to the design of an in-car system, but the mission was misdirected. Microsoft Sync gave us a version of Windows designed specifically for cars, and it ran inside the car's dashboard computer. But what we all wanted and needed was different: we just wanted to plug in our smartphones.

With a safely cradled smartphone or tablet, a power supply and an interface into a sound system, we have everything we need in a compact and familiar Internet-connected package: stored music, online streaming, radio stations, navigation, reminders, address book, social networks and so on. We don't need another device built into the car; we need the ability to use the device that's already part of our everyday lives. Apple realized this too, but maybe it took a while to convince the car manufacturers to face this reality. CarPlay provides the ability to plug in, and it adds some usability features that will also make it easier and safer to use on the road.

Google seems to be headed in the same direction with its Open Auto Alliance, which was announced at CES 2014. While the press releases are a bit vague, we expect this isn't just Android built-in to the car; it's Android brought into the car in the form of a tablet that can be plugged in.

With Apple and Google aligned in concept, this is a major shift in the car industry. Now those of us who regularly use rental cars, share cars with family members or friends, and use Zipcars can simply bring our entertainment and information with us.

Is it also, as suggested by at least one observer, the start of a "Smart Car War" to win space inside cars, with Google and Apple battling it out? Perhaps, but maybe not more than they are battling it out already. What we have here is actually a pretty simple idea, already implemented in a half-baked way by anyone who has used a smartphone for navigation, information and entertainment while driving a rental car or a borrowed car, in preference to digging out the car manual to work out how to use the built-in GPS. What Apple and Google will give us is a safer and tidier way to use our own devices. The interface between the tablet and the car is also fairly simple, although not necessarily standardized. Since smartphones are becoming more important in peoples' lives than cars, auto manufacturers cannot afford to partition their target markets rigidly so that only iOS users can buy a BMW, and only Android users can buy an Audi, for example. Moreover, many families contain a mix of devices and people sometimes change brands when they buy new devices. Will we have to buy a new car when we buy a new smartphone? Probably not.

The smart car wars are more likely to be waged around Apple and Google trying to maintain exclusivity, when it is clearly in the interests of the car companies to have a generic interface that can allow any device to be connected. Already we see that the "alliances" are not exclusive, with Honda, GM and Hyundai in both Apple's and Google's camps. We can assume there will be push-back from the car companies against any solution that limits their target markets, or that increases costs by creating a need to provide different interfaces as options. Moving toward a single standard interface for all devices wouldn't be technically difficult, although that's no reason to be confident that it will happen soon.

What both Google and Apple are hinting at is something even bigger than entertainment, and something that demands new capabilities and new products -- not just a better way of using existing mobile devices. This is the incorporation of smart devices into autonomous car management outside of driver and passenger features, such as entertainment and information, which are what Google and Apple are addressing in their recent announcements. We can be sure that both companies want to get under the hood and deliver real built-in automotive management, which is not something you want or need on your smartphone.

Apple and Google want to create Internet of Things technologies for vehicles. These technologies and features will attempt to make driving safer, more fuel efficient and less stressful. They'll include things such as systems that will allow cars to communicate and interact with each other and with external traffic management systems to reduce congestion and delays; systems that can sense the presence of other cars and act autonomously to avoid accidents; systems that could override driver commands in accordance with user-defined policies for safety and fuel consumption; and systems that can enable cars to group into platoons or road trains to reduce accidents and cut journey times, while offering another advantage: the driver can kick back and watch a movie, visit Facebook or make a business call or two on the tablet right there on the dashboard.

The Google and Apple announcements signal a new world of connectedness and fluid partnerships and services. It will be interesting to watch the pace of business model shifts and service complexity rise to a level unlike anything we have seen before, as companies strategize the best ways to future-proof themselves in the face of the growing demand for the Internet of Things.

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