The Auto Digital Experience Fight Club

  • Published on June 10, 2022
Composite photo created by Mariestella
Composite photo created by Mariestella

George Ayres

Automotive | Leader | Sales | Marketing | Mobility | Connected | Electric | Autonomous | Shared | Revenue | Growth

18 articles

Ok, what happens when you put all the competitors in a room and tell them to start swinging while simultaneously placing bets to pick the winners (and of course the losers) too? You guessed it, a fight club where it’s everyone for themselves. Makes a good movie perhaps, but does it make for a good way to digitally transform the automotive user experience? Are owners, drivers, riders, and fleets better off with tools that only work in one setting, or vehicle, and not in another? Do you need to put on a new pair of digital driving shoes each time you jump in a different car? Well, currently we are witnessing a sort of fight club mindset within car software experience development. It may get a little bloody, so hang on.

First, some boundary, or “ringside ropes” terminology to clarify this discussion. In the battle for the Digital Experience within Automobiles there are many terms, but all eventually come down to the same thing: How the car works when you’re either inside it, or controlling it remotely when outside of it. We can include ideas like “Software-Defined Vehicle” and the in-vehicle “Operating System,” in this mix. And proprietary names like Apple CarPlay or Google’s Android Auto are part of it too. And Amazon Alexa, as a way to control the experience with your voice, is included. And now we can add new names like “Ultifi,” General Motor’s new “end-to-end software platform” that is “designed to unlock new vehicle experiences and connect customers’ digital lives” as their announcement recently said. All of these things are coming together very rapidly, and the gloves have now been taken off all the participants. They used to play nice together, but now it’s getting serious.

For decades of course, only the carmakers controlled how the car worked; how you turned the radio on, adjusted the climate control, or how the car collected data. Then they started working with other companies like Verizon and WirelessCar to enable “telematics,” a way to transmit vehicle information to an off-board platform and for the vehicle to receive instructions “over-the-air” or OTA. Then smartphones came along and customers started to complain that if they actually complied with the local highway safety rules, and did not use or talk on their handheld phone while driving, then the car effectively became a black hole for them. They were “off the grid” in terms of data and communication when they were driving.

Since nearly everyone now relies on text, email, internet, and voice, to do basically anything, the automakers then needed a way to integrate these phones into the car so they could be used on the move without distraction. So Apple was given access to the vehicle and introduced Carplay, and Google was given access and introduced Android Auto. This was a love/hate relationship for most Auto OEM’s because when they give access, they lose control of the experience. Sometimes they forget of course that customers really LIKE their Apple i-phone experience, and enjoying this in their car as well is a good thing for owner loyalty.

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Once the door was open and the tech companies had access, they started pushing on it harder. Many Auto OEM’s have now signed up to let them too, and we’ll see if they are taking a punch in the process. At right is a recent listing from Google about the OEM’s that use the Android Automotive O/S. And just this week Apple made a big announcement about the new CarPlay and its ability to “more deeply integrate with a car’s hardware.” Ouch!

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Here is a view of what they mean. Without leaving the Apple interface you will be able to adjust climate controls, for example, so that you’re not jumping between CarPlay and the vehicle controls, keeping you inside the Apple O/S while you drive. It’s kind of like pushing you up against the ropes and holding you there awhile. From a carmaker point of view, ceding control of the customer experience for actually operating the car must be gut-wrenching. But they have already done it for music and “infotainment” so why not for other functions? But where does Apple stop and the Automaker’s own systems begin? How will GM’s Ultifi, for example, work with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay? What is Ultifi giving up? Who is going to win the fight for control of the experience? It’s a melee today.

Below as great chart from my friends at MotorMindz that shows a few good examples of how some Auto OEM’s are betting on winning this fight themselves. Of course for over 100 years automakers have controlled how their cars got built, but once sold, they were done. The only things they needed to worry about was paying for repairs under the warranty. Now they want to control, or at least participate in, how their cars get “operated and updated” by the first, second, and even third owners. Over the “lifetime” of your vehicle, they want to continuously upgade how your car works, help you enjoy improvements in operations and performance (and charge you for this) and generally make a car like a smartphone, with easy to install OTA updates. But what happens when Apple decides they don’t want to make that change to how the climate control gets adjusted, either because they are not ready or because they are not getting paid to do it? Does the Automaker have any recourse to force them? Giving up control has a downside if you are an OEM.

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Of course, the driver or passenger wants the best experience, so delays in making updates, or incompatibility stemming from a fight for control of the experience, may end up disappointing users, who will remember who’s car worked seamlessly, and who’s didn’t. One of the reasons Apple has been successful across phones, computers, tablets, and even tv’s is the idea of ‘interoperability.’ That means an Apple device will more or less work the same way, whatever the hardware or situation. A seamless user experience, where it would be comfortable for you to use and interact with apps in your friends car, your wife’s car, riding in the back of your daughter’s new car, or even riding in an Uber might make you not even think about how to access the experience. It will just happen. Muscle memory, perhaps.

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Some of the automakers are racing to create not just their own operating systems (O/S) but also their own “walled garden” ecosystems to go along with this. I remember buying a Verizon phone, back in the day, that had a proprietary set of Verizon apps, because Apple had not yet allowed Verizon to access its apps. It was pretty weak, and was quickly displaced by the Apple app store once the access was granted. It seems that AT&T had exclusive rights to the Apple iPhone until Feb 3, 2011 when Apple let Verizon also have it. What if Apple grant’s Ford exclusive rights to the new CarPlay, and GM Ultifi has to make do with the old one? Since no car company wants this situation, it makes sense for them to want to build their own “app stores” to keep their customers happy. But Automaker’s are not (yet) software companies, or app development companies just like a boxer and a fighter are not the same.

And here’s another interesting one. Subaru not long ago told it’s dealers that it had to disable its Starlink connected services in the State of Massachusetts in order to comply with the recent changes to the State’s “right-to-repair” law. As reported by Repairer Driven News, “a key issue in the case is whether it is possible for OEMs to comply with both federal law and Section 3 of the groundbreaking Massachusetts Data Access Law, which requires any OEM with a telematics system to provide an “inter-operable, standardized and open access platform across all of the manufacturer’s makes and models” independent repairers could use, beginning with the 2022 model year. So here is another dimension for automakers to deal with, open access to your O/S in order to allow others to work on your vehicles. Again giving up control. And the automaker is having to modify vehicle features, dynamically, in order to comply with government requests. If Apple or Google were controlling the vehicle O/S could Subaru rely on them to comply?

So what is the solution? Perhaps to win the fight the Auto OEM’s have to surrender to the user’s wishes. Automobiles are just one of the many devices people use in their daily lives, and for more and more of them, cars are simply a necessity to get from one physical place to another, and not a way to self-actualize or virtually move through the world. We have Meta/Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, Zoom, and a billion smartphone apps that can better hold user attention it seems. What people do want is for their personal technology to work together easily, and without effort, and to be able to use it while in their car, and maybe in an even better way. For example, why don’t all window’s function as display screens so that wherever you look, there is your information, or entertainment? Some OEM’s are working on exactly this. And as these users move through the world, they want their profiles and settings to move with them, and they’ll appreciate not noticing the changes that happen in the background. Alert. Adaptive. Agile. Sounds like a good fighter to me.

The Auto OEM’s that create the most open, flexible, and easiest to work with systems, for the most widely used technology and their providers, will win the fight and collect the pot of money. Then they can go home and clean up.