You've gotta hand it to Google for the way the Silicon Valley tech giant has made indelible inroads into the car on multiple fronts. The most obvious is with its pioneering self-driving car technology that's caused car companies to get their act together on autonomous vehicles — and also collaborate with Google.
Google has more directly extended its influence and data-mining capabilities into the car with its Android Auto smartphone-projection platform that most major automakers have adopted along with Apple's CarPlay. And now it's preparing to dig even deeper into dashboards by deploying its open-source operating system, Android Automotive, beginning with Audi and Volvo.
Volvo recently announced that its next-generation Sensus infotainment system will run Android Automotive as an OS and include Google's Play Store for cloud-based content, Maps for navigation and Google Assistant for voice recognition, which can even command a car's climate control. By embedding Google in the dash, Volvo says owners will get an improved connected experience.
"Bringing Google services into Volvo cars will accelerate innovation in connectivity and boost our development in applications and connected services," Volvo senior vice president of R&D Henrik Green said in a statement. "Soon, Volvo drivers will have direct access to thousands of in-car apps that make daily life easier and the connected in-car experience more enjoyable."
Having Android Automotive onboard could benefit drivers — and provide a big win for Google, since it opens a deep and lucrative new data-mining vein for the company. But it's a wave of a white flag for car companies when it comes to delivering their own cloud-based content and services. It also represents a massive data giveaway and, for Audi, a reversal of earlier reservations about letting Google get too much access to car data.
Not long after Android Auto and Apple CarPlay were introduced in 2014 and most automakers eagerly embraced the technologies, several German automakers second-guessed their decision when they realized what was at stake: data. At a conference in Berlin in 2015, Audi CEO Rupert Stadler said car owners "want to be in control of their data, and not subject to monitoring."
A few months earlier, Stadler stated that "the data that we collect is our data and not Google's. When it gets close to our operating system, it's hands off." Former VW Group CEO Martin Winterkorn also said at the time that German automakers "seek connection to Google's data systems, but we still want to be the masters of our own cars," while Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche added "Google tries to accompany people throughout their day, to generate data and then use that data for economic gain. It's at that point where a conflict with Google seems preprogrammed."
Audi hasn't announced when Android Automotive will appear in its vehicles, and according to Volvo the first Android-based system won't launch for a least "a couple years" in its cars. And chances are good that Google will cut deals with other automakers in the meantime and Android Automotive will appear in more dashboards as car companies seek a flexible, secure and easy updatable OS.
Android Auto can only tell Google where you're going, what music you listened to on the way and other info about your drive and can't access critical vehicle data. Information on everything from fluid levels to engine temperature is still the domain of automakers to mine and monetize, but Google will likely get access to that info too once Android is embedded.
Given the sluggish pace at which the automotive industry moves and that Google is already entrenched in German luxury cars – Local Search first appeared in BMW vehicles in 2007, Audi introduced Google Earth mapping in 2009 and Mercedes-Benz added Google Street View in 2013 – this could playing out as a slow war of attrition that Google will eventually win. But maybe it's for the better.
After all, automakers are good at building cars, not connected technology, while Google's business is built on using data to create innovative services. And also determining ways to simultaneously disrupt and support the auto industry.