Google’s auto push faces German resistance

Cornelius Rahn, Brian Parkin and Elisabeth Behrmann
Bloomberg News

Google Inc.’s push into cars is meeting growing opposition in Germany, where lawmakers are backing the likes of Audi and Mercedes-Benz as they seek to limit to the software company’s access under the hood.

Like in a smartphone, Google’s Android Auto will let drivers interact with their cars’ music and navigation systems. What carmakers don’t want, though, is for Android to control cars as it does phones and tablets.

That also worries German politicians. They don’t want the country’s flagship industry to have its importance diluted if Google gains access to data on the behavior and whereabouts of cars and their passengers. And if the German manufacturers who dominate the technologically innovative luxury segment aren’t ready to play along, Google may find it more difficult to penetrate the industry as a whole.

“The data that we collect is our data and not Google’s data,” Audi Chief Executive Officer Rupert Stadler said, echoing comments from Volkswagen AG CEO Martin Winterkorn and Daimler AG CEO Dieter Zetsche. “When it gets close to our operating system, it’s hands off.”

Already concerned about Google’s market power, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government wants to prevent the California-based company from building a monopoly position as a partner for developing cars that will ultimately drive themselves. The automotive industry accounted for 6.5 percent of all taxable revenue in Germany in 2012, according to the Federal Statistical Office, making it the country’s biggest manufacturing sector.

“We mustn’t under any circumstances let our development become dependent on companies like Google,” said Joachim Pfeiffer, spokesman for Merkel’s parliamentary bloc on economic and energy policy.

The market for assisted-driving software may reach $25 billion by 2030, consulting firm Roland Berger said this month.

Google spokesman Klaas Flechsig declined to comment on political opposition to the software maker’s plans.

The company no longer has a target for the first Android Auto cars to be on the streets by the end of this year, Flechsig said. He declined to comment further on timing.

When Economy and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel met Google Chairman Eric Schmidt in Berlin on Oct. 14, he told the American executive that he “admires Google — but I also admire the skills of an engineer who can build a car.” The European Union wants to establish its own “data architecture” to support economic growth, Gabriel said.

Lessons from the mobile-phone industry are fresh on executives’ and regulators’ minds. As more consumers relied on mobile applications and services, Android forced handset makers such as Samsung Electronics Co. and HTC Corp. to comply with its standards, largely stripping them of their individual strengths. Within five years of the operating system’s introduction, European players Nokia Oyj and Ericsson AB quit making phones entirely.

The more Google and other software makers manage to embed themselves in the ecosystem of a car, the more consumer money will go to technology companies instead of carmakers, said Juergen Reiner, a partner at consulting company Oliver Wyman.

“There’s one point where carmakers can protect themselves from someone wedging themselves in between the producers and the customers,” Reiner said. “It’s about the data that’s created in and around the car.”