Carmakers compete to keep you entertained

By Sooraj Shah
Business reporter

  • Published
Bhavin Bhagalia and his new Tesla Model 3Image source, Bhavin Bhagalia
Image caption,
Bhavin Bhagalia and his new Tesla Model 3

Bhavin Bhagalia from London has just bought his first electric car.

"I didn't just want something that could get me from A to B, I wanted the entire travelling experience to be better," he says.

With that in mind he bought a Tesla Model 3. As well as its performance, Mr Bhagalia was attracted by its in-car entertainment.

"You can play music straight from your Spotify account and when we have been charging the car on our journeys we have been watching Netflix and YouTube through the apps which come with the vehicle," he says.

All these apps are available on the main screen in the Tesla. However, it is only possible to use the music app Spotify while the car is moving.

Others, like YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and games won't work unless the car is parked. Ultimately, when cars become autonomous, drivers may be able to use these apps while the car is moving, but that is a long way off.

Apps for cars have existed for many years, but now customers like Mr Bhagalia have high expectations about what carmakers can provide.

"The big car manufacturers are playing catch-up with software. They've all been caught napping to some extent as it was clear what had been going on in the mobile phone space and the level of expectation from users in-car," says Jamie Broome, head of automotive business at Imagination Technologies, a company that provides the technology building blocks in millions of cars.

"It is going to take a pretty big leap and no-one has done that yet. Who is going to come along and bring it together in a way that we saw Apple do with the mobile phone?"

Image source, Imagination Technologies
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The big carmakers are playing catch-up, according to Jamie Broome

Developing apps for cars is not cheap, nor is it easy because of the stringent safety and security measures that have to be put in place in cars.

As a result, software developers need a big incentive to develop an app for a car - and the biggest incentive is a large user base.

It's for this reason that the Volkswagen Group and Google have a big advantage in the market at the moment.

Volkswagen sells 10 million cars a year that use the company's own software platform and operating system.

It has invested heavily in its Car.Software Organization, which has brought together all of the group's software staff, including those from its Audi and Porsche brands, into one team.

Image source, Volkswagen
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Volkswagen is building its own software system

Meanwhile, Google works with over 50 car brands, with Android Auto on track to be in more than 100 million cars in the coming months.

With around 2.5 billion people already using Google's Android software on smartphones and other devices, consumers are already familiar with the way Android looks and works.

"We've taken the learnings and processes from mobile and applied them to how we approach Google Play on other devices," says Mickey Kataria, director of project management, Android for Cars.

Car manufacturers have been drawn to Google as a way to catch up with the likes of Tesla.

"A big dilemma that the automotive industry has been facing for some years is a big pressure to tackle the disruption in the mobility sector, and more carmakers are coming to the conclusion that the best way is to partner with a technology company, because you can achieve the results faster with less investment," says Pedro Pacheco, senior research director at analysis firm Gartner.

Image source, Google
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Some carmakers have teamed up with Google to use its Android Auto system

However, Mr Broome suggests that cars that use their own operating system, rather than a technology company's, will enable a better user experience.

"You can only see true alignment when you have both and that's why Tesla is the one to watch. For instance, it is a lot harder for Google to make hardware features generically because of the variety of Android devices, whereas you get a more aligned experience on Apple devices," he says.

Björn Goerke, chief technology officer at Volkswagen Group's Car.Software Organization, echoes this sentiment.

"The more the apps know about the specific context in which they are operating, the better the experience will be for the user," he says, referring to the car sensors and various other parts of the car which may not be accessible to Google.

While carmakers are happy to co-operate with software firms, they will only go so far. They might be comfortable with voice control of the music system, temperature control and even the garage door. But handing over control of the driving systems and specific data and knowledge about how the car works might well be too much.

Image source, Volkswagen
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Cars are increasingly becoming software on wheels

Mr Goerke from Volkswagen also says there is an important issue surrounding car owners' data privacy.

"This is something Volkswagen will continue to own. Customers need to remain in charge of the data we're collecting and it needs to be clear what is happening with their data, and that it is not going to be given away through that particular kind of channel which sits in the car," he says.

Other car manufacturers like Mercedes are also building their own operating systems.

Many are keen to see how Apple develops its relationship with the car industry.

In 2016, it scaled back "Project Titan", a secretive effort to build what was dubbed the Apple Car, but it kept on a number of employees who had been working on the project.

Mr Broome says he wouldn't be surprised if Apple is working with several carmakers behind closed doors.

Eventually, Mr Pacheco believes there will be just a few operating systems on the market left to fight it out.

As for Mr Bhagalia, he believes his new Tesla could eventually have apps from Amazon or Tesco on board, allowing a passenger to do some shopping, as well as apps for multiplayer online gaming.

"Tesla already has a number of games but hopefully in the future, drivers can play against each other while they're charging their cars," says Mr Bhagalia.