Mountain View, California – Google announced a blizzard of car-based Android operating system updates Wednesday as the Silicon Valley tech giant tries to accelerate the convergence of automobiles and computer networks.
Google’s Android Auto app — a sort of digital patch which helps integrate smartphones into more than 100 models of cars — will add the traffic and navigation app Waze. It also brings its Hotwording feature, similar to Apple’s popular Siri personal assistant. Hotwording triggers voice recognition with the words “OK Google.” Users can also utilize Android Auto features outside the car, including voice-enabled calling, messaging and navigation.
The company’s showcase at its annual Google I/O developers-palooza in Mountain View, California, is a Maserati Quattroporte with its infotainment system run by Android’s latest operating system, Android N.
The introduction of Android N, an open-source operating system — giving the car’s console the functionality of an Android phone or Chrome-operated computer tablet — provides a glimpse at a future in which manufacturers may be able to more affordably develop in-car technology, and where autonomous cars will be able to communicate with one another.
“Our open-source Android N system will lower the cost for carmakers to develop AM-FM radio, HVAC, Bluetooth calling, navigation and other features,” said Patrick Brady, director of Android Engineering.
Google’s gambit is not the first attempt by a tech titan to develop an in-car operating system. Microsoft hooked up with Ford to develop its Sync infotainment system in 2007, for example. But Google’s massive investment in automobiles — from the self-driving Google car to its partnership with Fiat Chrysler to test a self-driving Pacifica minivan — points to an effort to make Android the foundation of everything from phones to tablets to cars in order in order to provide a seamless experience from one platform to another.
“This is just the tip of a larger spear,” Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Karl Brauer of the Android N. “It’s an attempt to make Android the default system for vehicle development and lays the groundwork for the self-driving car features we all see coming — such as allowing cars to travel more safely together by talking to each other.”
Gone are the modular component days when consumers could just switch out their radio/CD module for the latest product. But automakers still must develop their own infotainment systems — Chrysler’s UConnect and Ford’s Sync, for example — and then pair them with outside operating systems like Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS. Android N would allow automakers to more affordably develop — and update — car technologies on a standardized platform.
“Automakers seem excited about it,” said Android’s Brady, who added that Google has not yet signed a contract with an automaker. “This will lower their development costs.”
As with its smartphone operating system, Android has partnered with Qualcomm — the dominant manufacturer of smartphone processors — to make its Maserati-based demo. Google’s infotainment system is displayed in a 15-inch screen in the car’s center console and features an Android user interface.
Anton Wahlman, an independent auto analyst who tracks vehicle technology, says automakers might be leery about hitching their horse to one operating system in an industry that has seen volatile change in the last two decades. But he also sees Google’s announcement as evidence of more integration between Android and manufacturers like Fiat Chrysler (which owns Maserati).
Egil Juliussen, an infotainment analyst with IHS Automotive, is more bullish on Google’s technology: “An Android OS for infotainment will have a significant impact on the auto industry. It will take an increasing market share after 2017 and could reach 35 percent sometime after 2020.”
Google also is showcasing a Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Mercedes E-Class, which are three of 40 brands with Android Auto capability.
In addition to Waze and Hotwording, Google Android Auto app upgrades will allow automakers to use the platform to develop their own programs. Honda and Elantra will both display their own apps. Google has been slow to roll out apps for use with Android Auto out of concern for driver distraction, says Google’s Brady.
The Google I/O conference is held in Mountain View near the company’s California headquarters in order to update developers on the latest Google wizardry from virtual reality to transportation. Google has been active in the auto space since its marshmallow-shaped autonomous Google car made headlines.
KBB’s Brauer sees Google’s Android operating as a key step toward self-driving vehicles. Though fleets of operating system-sharing, autonomous cars are sci-fi stuff for now, industry insiders predict a future of dedicated lanes for autonomous cars that can safely travel at 100-plus miles per hour while networking with one another to travel just inches apart.
An Android N-equipped car could also communicate with surrounding businesses, allowing passengers to better locate restaurants, hotels and other points of interest.
Henry Payne is The News’ auto critic. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @HenryEPayne