An increasing number of automakers are teaming up with Apple and Google to add the companies’ in-car interfaces, CarPlay and Android Auto, to enable drivers to use their smartphones with vehicles’ built-in screens. Right now, the tech firms and car companies are in agreement about the purpose of their relationship: to integrate car systems and smartphones so that drivers are always connected, even while on the road. But who is really in control of these in-car interfaces, and who is watching out for the privacy of the data that you inevitably share when you connect your smartphone to your car?
Ad Age reports that the competing philosophies and interests of the range of companies involved are beginning to come into play in these partnerships, raising the possibility of future tensions over privacy, profits, and even safety between Apple, Google, and car manufacturers. Ad Age’s Gabe Nelson illustrates the burgeoning problem with the example of WhatsApp, a messaging app with a modest U.S. user base but more than 600 million users globally, which makes it the most popular messaging app in the world.
While Google demonstrated at the Los Angeles Auto Show that Android Auto will read the driver an incoming WhatsApp message and enable him or her to dictate a reply, Apple’s CarPlay does not support WhatsApp. In fact, Apple has confirmed that third-party messaging apps will be unavailable altogether. The only option that users have with CarPlay are to use the phone’s texting option or to use Apple’s own iMessage. In fact, the only type of third-party app that Apple currently supports is streaming audio, which, incidentally, is seen as CarPlay’s biggest advantage over current in-car entertainment systems. Apps like Spotify, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher are available even though they compete with Apple’s own iTunes Radio.
With CarPlay and Android Auto, are Apple and Google calling the shots?
Mathias Halliger, chief architect of Audi AG’s MMI infotainment system, told Ad Age that he thinks Apple will eventually add third-party messaging to CarPlay, perhaps when automakers and consumers demonstrate that there’s enough demand for the feature. But the unilateral choice on the part of Apple — to not allow third-party messaging apps on CarPlay — illustrates what Nelson terms a shifting balance of power in the auto industry.
He said to Ad Age that automakers have traditionally enjoyed near-total control over the content in their vehicles, with suppliers catering to their needs. But Apple and Google — whom carmakers refer to as “partners” — make their own decisions. Nelson notes that such decisions may, in the future, be weightier choices than the question of whether to support third-party messaging apps. Carmakers could eventually wish to block an app that collects consumer data but find that Apple and Google are calling the shots on whether it stays or goes.
Automakers contacted by Automotive News said that they’ve been involved in developing guidelines for apps through groups like the Google-led Open Automotive Alliance, but they don’t have the power to give individual approvals. A GM spokesman told Ad Age, “Apple and Google own the products themselves and are really the only ones who can speak to the final decision-making,” while members of the alliance have have “committed to support any and all apps within Android Auto and Apple CarPlay that meet the guidelines in place.”
More than two dozen automakers have committed to CarPlay and Android Auto. The rollout is expected to become widespread in 2015, with Audi, Honda, Hyundai, and Volvo to be the first to use them in mass-market models distributed in the United States. Alpine and Pioneer will sell aftermarket units equipped with CarPlay.
Who’s responsible for your safety and privacy when you connect your smartphone to your car?
Ad Age notes that automakers are more fearful than Apple or Google are that they will be subject to lawsuits over privacy breaches and distracted driving. Jorg Brakensiek, who leads a technical working group at the Car Connectivity Consortium, which is behind a rival platform called MirrorLink, says that that makes sense given the fact that car companies are usually the ones hit with a lawsuit when something goes wrong with one of their vehicles.
But Brakensiek told Ad Age that “the OEMs are going from full control to more or less no control, and that might create some tensions. They get more content, but I think they’re slowly recognizing the downside. Nothing comes for free.” Daimler AG Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche said to Ad Age that tension with Google over Android Auto seems likely, even inevitable: “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. That’s where we need to negotiate.”
Another important issue is the safety of the drivers who use CarPlay and Android Auto, and it hasn’t yet been established who will be liable if something goes wrong. As Tech Cheat Sheet reported in October, a recent study conducted by researchers at the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of Utah found that even though many drivers believe hands-free technology is safe to use while driving, such in-car tech can be dangerously distracting, even if users don’t need to take their eyes off the road to interact with the technology.
The researchers concluded that voice-based interactions ranging from simple car commands to menu-based interactions to natural language interfaces are all unsafe.
While Apple’s CarPlay is closed to third-party apps except for streaming audio apps, Google has gone so far with Android Auto as to launch an API for developers to bring their own apps to the in-car interface. As The Next Web reported in November, the API only enables third-party developers to create audio and messaging apps for Android Auto so far, but will support more app categories in the future.
The move to include third-party developers also gives some insight into the safety precautions that Google is taking with its in-car interface. Android Auto requires third-party apps to fit into what Ad Age describes as a template, and they must follow a variety of restrictions. They also go through a testing process to make sure that the apps are safe for drivers to use. Audi’s Halliger told Ad Age that the testing relies on distracted-driving guidelines established by U.S. regulators in 2013. Primarily, if a driver needs to look away from the road for more than two seconds at a time, or 12 seconds total, to perform a task, the function should not be available.
Whether such safety tests will be stringent enough for drivers’ safety remains to be seen, as does how Apple, Google, and automakers will handle the variety of data generated by Android Auto and CarPlay. As 9to5Mac notes, CarPlay and Android Auto apps aren’t installed directly on the system, but instead work as “projections” from the driver’s smartphone.
The implications for how they handle data and consequently how they protect users’ privacy are unclear. What is clear, according to Halliger, is that while Google and Apple both have different approaches, car makers are aligned. He said in his interview with Ad Age: “We have to be. Each party has their own opinion about how this looks in detail, but of course, the automotive experience aligns us.”
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