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Google?s Android Auto envisions big role for smartphones in connected cars

Android Auto, Google?s new connected car play that already has over 40 automaker partners, puts the smartphone front and center so that drivers can access the most up-to-date experiences without having to wait for automakers to bake it in. 

Google's unveiling of Android Auto at its I/O developers conference with the backing of such car brands as Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, Honda and Volkswagen, will let motorists synthesize their favorite mobile phone navigation, communication and music systems through a voice-enabled smartphone application that transfers the phone?s screen to a car?s screen. The much-anticipated launch, on the heels of rival Apple?s introduction of its CarPlay system, reflects the rising prominence of in-vehicle applications. 

?Google cares about cars, and phones are the first point of market entry,? said Roger Lanctot, associate director of global automotive practice for research and consulting firm Strategy Analytics in Newton, MA. ?Google is pushing its own ecosystem.?

Open Automotive Alliance
The launch capped off Google?s formation earlier this year of the Open Automotive Alliance that included numerous car brands, aimed at bringing Android and its open-source software to in-car entertainment and information systems.
At least one alliance member officially said it would make an Android-equipped vehicle available later this year. Hyundai, a founding member, said Android Auto would be available in select Hyundai models starting in the 2015 model year.

The battle shaping up between CarPlay, which integrates the iPhone with in-car entertainment systems, and Android Auto reflects the growing presence of in-vehicle applications, with global revenues from consumer and commercial telematics expected to reach nearly $20 billion by 2018, according to a recent report from Juniper Research. (see story)

The growth in the connected-car market will be key for automotive manufacturers as it will enable them to generate revenue throughout the lifetime of a vehicle rather than just at the point of sale.

In another move toward in-car integration, Amazon late last year said it formed a partnership with the BMW group to bring the Amazon Cloud Player for iOS access to BMW and Mini cars.

Smartphone tethering
Even before Google?s launch of Android Auto, the integration of apps into vehicles through smartphone tethering and direct integration was expected to get a boost from the launch of CarPlay.

As car radio continues to evolve, services are seen shifting away from the current app-oriented approach, which shows buttons on the screen and more toward a new, fused experience.

Automakers take telematics seriously as models of connectivity are seen as making or breaking the sale of the vehicle itself. It is not yet clear how connectivity in the vehicle will ultimately be paid for and how the money from activities such as infotainment will be distributed between the vehicle manufacturer, the telecom provider and the content provider.

The design freedom that Android?s open-source software gives engineers is seen as an advantage for Google in its contest with Apple.

?It can be built upon,? said Doug Newcomb, an automotive writer who organized the Connected Car Conference, or C3, in New York, which brought together experts to discuss mobile issues in the automotive industry. "That?s particularly important in the automotive industry because it takes so long for automakers to bring products to market. 

?All the hard work?s already been done regarding software in open source, and then it?s a matter of refining that and adding details.?

Final Take

Michael Barris is staff reporter with Mobile Marketer, New York