Last night's announcement of the Open Automotive Alliance — a new industry group helmed by Google and top-tier automakers like Audi, GM, and Honda — served as the loudest call yet of CES's rapid transformation over the past couple years into a car show. Yes, not just a car-friendly show, an actual car show: automakers from BMW to Volvo have announcements lined up for this week. More than ever, keynote addresses and press conferences from auto industry executives now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their counterparts from Sony and Samsung.
CES — and the futurism that is inexorably linked to it — have long been at loggerheads with cars, polluting relics of the twentieth century with no place in our high-tech tomorrow (or so the logic went). But with smartphones plateauing and Tesla invigorating Silicon Valley in a way that Detroit never could, there's a feeling in the air that cars are the next Wild West in consumer electronics: an exciting place of trial and error where engineers and designers are trying to figure out what works and what doesn't while billions of dollars lie on the table in wait.
And that sets the stage for Google, which is looking to expand Android beyond the smartphone market that it has already conquered. That expansion has already included a lukewarm entry into the living room with Google TV, but cars could be a very different venture: "modern" infotainment systems from most automakers today are half-baked messes, scattershot attempts at repurposing features and UI concepts from phones and tablets that don't demonstrate the consumer electronic prowess of a Google, an Apple, or a Microsoft. Where Google TV may have been a solution looking for a problem, the Open Automotive Alliance — and similar efforts elsewhere in the industry — are trying to fix very real problems with very real cars.
As the Alliance's nebulous press release and sparse website have suggested, sources tell The Verge that the group will take a two-pronged approach to owning the dashboard: there will be Android-powered cars, but there will also be enhancements to Android smartphones geared and making them more car-friendly. It's unclear what those features will be, but it's easy to see where Google could focus its efforts in the next version of Android — standard frameworks for controlling apps from a dashboard or with voice control, for instance. There could also be some form of screen (and feature) mirroring from the phone to the car's display, not unlike what Apple is offering with iOS in the Car when it's fully commercialized this year.
GM isn't playing favorites — it's a partner for iOS in the Car, too
That's probably a more realistic short-term strategy for at least some of the Alliance's members. GM, for instance, just announced a commercial launch of its AppShop app store after spending an entire year building up developer support for its own platform. It seems unlikely that the company would be looking to tear the guts out of its dashboards and replace them with Android-powered systems any time soon, but tighter smartphone integration is an easy win. Indeed, GM isn't playing favorites here: the company is also a launch partner for iOS in the Car.
In other words, what's happening in the dashboard in 2014 in many way mirrors the heady early days of the modern smartphone, circa 2008: Apple and Google fighting for control, hardware makers trying their hands at their own proprietary platforms, and a sky's-the-limit mentality enjoyed by everyone in the game. It's an awfully fun time to be watching this space — but it could be a long time before we see meaningful improvement in the driver's experience.