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Ford did it with telematics. Audi did it with graphics and navigation. GM did it with smartphone applications. These, and many other automakers, are reinventing the automotive supply chain by breaking the stronghold that traditional tier-1 electronics suppliers had on the market. The pace of automotive innovation is now quickened, yet there are trade-offs for automakers when working directly with the largest technology firms on the planet.
In years past, an OEM would source a navigation system from a supplier with little interest for what it did or how it was designed. Now OEMs work directly with the “nontraditional” suppliers like NVIDIA, Sharp, Flextronics, and Google to ensure their infotainment systems meet quality, usability, and performance guidelines. This new trend has 100-year-old industrials working directly with start-ups to find innovation. For example, according to Phil Abram, Chief Infotainment Officer at GM, they are, “establishing a community where developers can join in exploring what’s possible with in-vehicle apps.” Clearly, this is external innovation at work.
This trend will continue and, in the near term, focus on the integration of the smartphone. The difference here is the “nontraditional” suppliers in this case are not start-ups, by any means.
Recently, IHS Automotive witnessed significant attention paid to smartphone projection systems, namely Apple CarPlay. Google also has a solution in the works, called Projected Mode, and MirrorLink, which started it all, is well-known but struggling to find scale. Apple and Google have the advantage of pushing their solution up through a mobile OS via hundreds of millions of devices, whereas MirrorLink, an open-source collaboration, must work to build momentum one device-maker at a time.
Based on recent events and announced OEM development platforms, IHS Automotive forecasts sales of Apple CarPlay to reach 16 million unit sales in only four years and Google Projected Mode to reach 17 million unit sales in the same timeframe.
This development is shared among nearly all major automakers today. 14 OEMs are a part of the MirrorLink initiative (part of the Connected Car Consortium). 16 OEMs have either announced, or are in development with Apple for CarPlay deployment. And four OEMs are a part of the Open Automotive Alliance, which is predominantly Google and Android focused. The most notable missing OEM from this list is Chrysler, although it could be planning development via the Fiat work with MirrorLink.
While many OEMs claim to already have one to two years of development work alongside Apple and Google, neither solution will reach 10 million sales until 2017, due in part to the longer product cycles in automotive. Another reason for this delay, and the seemingly slow pace of development, is the incongruent cultures between an industry without safety-critical components and one with a storied history of product-safety recalls.
Consumer electronics bridging the gap
It is in this vein that change must occur. For many years, automakers and tier-1 suppliers have tried unsuccessfully to integrate smartphones and other mobile devices into the car. Consumers demanded it. They did not want to leave their connected lifestyle outside the car. Ford and many other OEMs began thinking like a consumer electronics company.
Attempts to bridge the gap between automotive and consumer electronics lead to significant deployments of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, USB, in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) software platforms, application software-development kits (SDKs), and other technologies. While many have tried, no single infotainment or telematics platform has succeeded to achieve the same consumer electronics (CE) user experiences.
Therefore, it is Silicon Valley that must extend the olive branch back toward automotive. And it is finally happening. As recently as the 2013 LA Auto Show, Tarun Bhatnagar, Director of Google Maps for Business, was invited up on stage as a part of Jim Farley’s – who is Ford's EVP, Global Marketing, Sales, Service, and Lincoln – opening keynote speech.
Bhatnagar proceeded to discuss Google's approach and commitment to automotive. He stated there are now 12 billion miles driven on Google Maps every year, but that the car—in large part—is not yet truly connected. Problems of compatibility, policy, user experience, and content have kept these worlds apart for too many years. Bhatnagar continued making four recommendations on how the CE world can help facilitate progress in automotive technologies:
First, the CE world needs to make the devices that people use daily work with the vehicle, while allowing for automakers to differentiate services, content, and UX. If differentiation disappears in the interest of compatibility, then automakers have little left to market to buyers.
Second, the CE world should begin to consider, understand, and implement automotive safety standards into its products. Although much of a smartphone's use will exist outside of a vehicle, its activity inside the car should not ignore the car’s inherent safety-critical considerations.
Third, the CE world should work with automakers for seamless integration of personalized content, services, and cloud(s). While battles between content ecosystems continue outside the vehicle, one should not be forced into one car brand over another, simply because of their affiliations and content subscriptions outside of the vehicle.
Last, the CE world should actively and openly share UX best practices. Similar to the differentiation concept, device and software companies should work with all automakers to help build better, more intuitive, and less complex UX philosophies across the whole automotive landscape. This does not mean making all systems into one, but rather sharing research data on font size, contrast levels, cognitive testing, haptics, system redundancies, and more. BMW's iDrive can still be uniquely BMW. Audi's MMI can still be uniquely Audi. However, if both subscribe to the same principles in user experience design, then both are well positioned to reduce distraction and enhance customer satisfaction.
It is clear that if automakers are to continue progress in this space, they have to work with Silicon Valley to make it a reality. Most major automakers have set up shop in and around the region to co-locate with some of the most innovative thinkers in the world. Yet, it will be a cultural shift that must occur in either technology firms or automakers to optimize this collaboration. And if neither side flexes, then the aforementioned developments will have been a waste.