Google wants Android to power your car

Mark Gurman and Mark Bergen
Bloomberg News

Android already powers most smartphones on earth. Now Google is placing its mobile operating system right inside cars, a bid to cement its core service in the auto industry as more technology sweeps in.

On Monday, ahead of its I/O mobile developers conference, Alphabet Inc.’s Google showed off its next step in automotive software: an Android version of touchscreen car consoles and infotainment systems. It will host popular applications, like Google Maps and Spotify, but also control car features like seat positioning and temperature. The new system also embeds the Google Assistant — the company’s voice control service, for searching on the go, asking for directions, and making phone calls — in cars for the first time.

Google showed off live demonstrations of the operating system running on the Audi Q8 and Volvo V90 SUVs. Patrick Brady, a vice president of engineering for Android, said the system will make its way to Audi and Volvo’s entire fleets, along with other manufacturers. Google showed a concept of the software running on a Chrysler vehicle earlier this year.

This isn’t Google’s first stab at software for cars. In 2014, the tech giant introduced Android Auto, a system that lets people project content from their Android smartphones to their car’s screen. Brady said Android Auto now runs on 300 car models.

The new system plunges deeper, taking over the underlying software on the car. A driver doesn’t need to plug in an Android phone to run it. It also adds some features, like 3-D mapping and satellite images, that Android Auto lacks. Bradysaid this fusion of apps and controls inside a car is necessary. “Where cars are going, everything is integrated into one display,” he said. “We think the future is a much more seamless, integrated system.”

Other software companies have pitched a similar system. BlackBerry Ltd.’s QNX division powers the systems inside of more than 50 million cars currently on the road, including models from Ford Motor Co. and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz. Samsung Electronic Co. spent $8 billion for Harman International Inc., a leading supplier of in-car entertainment services. And some car companies, like Toyota Motor Corp., have invested in their own features, highlighting manufacturer’s concerns with ceding a critical consumer experience to tech companies.

Apple Inc., which currently offers the CarPlay product that’s similar in practice to Android Auto, is also working on its own car operating system to power its self-driving software, Bloomberg News has reported. Brady said that Apple’s CarPlay could run on top of cars with the embedded Android system.

Bloomberg News received a preview of an Android-based infotainment system running on a Volvo. This version of the software had three main windows for users: a central panel for playing music, making calls and navigating; another with a grid of core car functions; and a third that lists installed Android apps. A button on the steering wheel and a voice command can activate the Google Assistant.

Google executives said the software will not reach to instruments critical to car safety — it’s keeping YouTube off the screen, for instance, given the risk to distracting drivers.

The new car feature also hints at Google’s long-term ambitions to spread its artificial intelligence service to every corner of consumer’s lives. For example, a user in a compatible car could ask the Assistant to turn on the lights at home before arriving, Brady said.