Over the past week or two, everyone from GM to Volvo has announced the imminent introduction of Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto in most new models, hailing them as the next great steps in automotive tech innovation. This reliance on such powerful, non-automotive companies for such a consumer-visible feature and differentiating factor is a fairly new concept to OEMs, who in the past have relied on ventures with automotive suppliers like Delphi and QNX to build special tech platforms for each distinct brand.
That seems to be changing now that CarPlay and Android Auto will look and act virtually identically in every car, regardless of if it’s a Ferrari or a Honda. While this is great if you’re a driver (since you won’t have to learn a new platform every time you get into a different brand of car), it’s a dangerous precedent for automakers to set. Consumers today are buying cars more due to the unique tech features and less due to the car’s performance metrics. Rupert Stadler, CEO of Audi, recently stated that technology features will be more important to average consumers than horsepower by 2020.
So what happens when the features that consumers most care about when buying a car are features that the car company themselves did not create or have any control over? Well, certainly nothing good for the margins of the OEMs as the supplier power of Google and Apple continues to grow. We’re at an intersection between what the car has been for a hundred years, and what it’s going to be in the next twenty years. For automakers to be successful against Apple and Google, they’re going to have to beat them at their own game.
What is Google and Apple’s game? To create a platform by which every device in your life seamlessly interacts, thereby achieving a sort of tech ecosystem. So how do you beat them at this game if you’re a carmaker? By making the car, as Stadler also noted, the most powerful and important device in the consumer’s tech ecosystem. To me, the new age of the Internet of Things should be more aptly named the Food Chain of Things. Apple and Google have created a new battlefield for companies from a variety of industries to try to position their products higher up the Food Chain of Things than the next guy’s product, thereby making it less likely that the consumer views your product as superfluous and unnecessary compared to other devices.
There are obvious, true advantages to automobiles over smartphones and iPads, mainly in their ability to physically transport people rather than just show Instagram pictures of where they could be. In this new era of Food Chain of Things, cars need to be more affordable like other devices we buy, and they need to seamlessly incorporate the virtual world while at the same time seamlessly incorporating the physical one.
What might this look like in reality? New payment options and ownership flexibility, better traffic management and safety, and better incorporation of smartphone features are just the beginning. To solidify the car’s sustainable place in the digital age, carmakers are going to have to do battle with pretty much every consumer-facing industry that wants a bite of the Food Chain of Things, and nowhere is this more apparent than with Google and Apple. It’s an uphill battle, but luckily it’s a brave new world for everyone, not just carmakers.