Tech giants keen to be in driver's seat as internet hits the road

With the car becoming a mobile accessory, tech giants are vying to be in driver's seat as motorists demand to stay in touch when they hit the road

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 January, 2014, 12:09am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 January, 2014, 3:33am

As the car becomes a connected internet device, the titans of the technology sector are battling for control of the wheel.

The war is shaping up a lot like the computer sector, with Google, Apple and Microsoft and others fighting to be in control of the vehicle's "operating system" to deliver apps, navigation and other services.

Some of those battles were played out over the past week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which included a record nine car makers and scores of equipment makers, including software and related tech companies.

"People want consumer apps in their cars, they want to connect to their smartphones, they want to connect to the cloud," says Grant Courville, director of product management at QNX, which makes the on-board systems used in tens of millions of cars.

But Courville said the battlefield was wide open because "there's no clear dominant app ecosystem in automotive".

Canadian-based QNX unveiled a partnership with Qualcomm to support the chipmaker's new automotive platform, which connects to smartphones and offers apps for maps, speech recognition, geolocation and vehicle analytics.

At the same time, Google unveiled a partnership with General Motors, Audi, Honda and Hyundai in a new partnership to bring the Android mobile system to vehicles in an Open Automotive Alliance.

The moves come with Microsoft in a longstanding partnership with Ford, and Apple widely expected to expand its system for connecting the iPhone with automotive electronics systems.

"Carmakers are conflicted," said Tim Tang, an analyst with IDC attending the Las Vegas expo. "They are trying to decide whether to build their own systems or partner with another company. If they partner, they mitigate a lot of the risk, but they give a lot away, looking at future services, like apps, pay-as-you-go insurance. No one is certain where it is going but carmakers don't want to be left out. The car is becoming a mobile accessory."

Tang said a key question for carmakers was whether the cars should have a dedicated connection or use the smartphone.

"If it is a smartphone model, it's easy to get traction quickly, you don't need to design the system five years in advance," he said. "But if it is built into the car you have some advantages. If the car is stolen, for example, you can shut it off."

The GM division Chevrolet said this week it would deploy 4G internet connections on several models to help motorists who wanted to stay connected with the growing number of apps for cars.

But compatibility issues in the nascent "infotainment" technology can mean some systems deliver apps from Apple or Android but not both.

Mazda this week announced in Las Vegas a partnership with the US software firm OpenCar to launch a new standards-based app system that allows the on-board screen to act as a browser and use a wide range of applications on the internet.

Paul Boyes, head of telematics and standards for Seattle-based OpenCar, said carmakers using the system would have more control of the apps, being able to choose those deemed safe for the road, and be able to draw from the full internet, not just Android or Apple.

"With us, the carmakers are tied to a browser, not a company," he said. "If you have Apple or Android, you are married to their system."

Mazda staff manager Hideki Okano said carmakers were being forced to consider these new systems when designing vehicles, to keep up with what consumers were demanding.

"In the US market, infotainment and connectivity is becoming a major factor for car buying," Okano said. "It is also growing in other markets."

QNX's Courville said his firm, a unit of BlackBerry, was benefitting from the growth in new technologies because it could deliver the overall platform that could interact with Android, Apple and others.

"You need that battle-hardened system," he said. "We're the market leader in infotainment."

Even if carmakers want to use a system like Android, they still need to integrate into the car a system designed for smartphones and tablets.

It wasn't all about the vehicular operating systems at the expo.

For instance, Delphi Automotive provided a mock-up that envisages "autonomous driving lanes". The company imagines that vehicles might someday enter these lanes and then run on auto-pilot.

The feat is possible today with a mixture of technology that keeps cars inside lanes and adaptive cruise control that matches a car's speed to the vehicle in front of it.

While in the autonomous lane, the car's window glass frosts up and functions that had been disabled for the driver - like video playing from a mini projector - turn on. The driver can pursue other activities such as surfing the web.

Additional reporting by Associated Press