Is this an Apple or an Android car? That may be the question you find yourself asking in the not so distant future.
“I think the two tech behemoths, Apple and Google, are moving quickly into position. There is a major battle starting to brew over who will take control.” said Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT AgeLab and the associate director of the New England University Transportation Center.
“They own the tablet and smartphone space, but the car is an environment that a lot of us spend a lot of time in and they have a strong desire to own that relationship,” he added.
While only about 10 percent of automobiles have built-in connectivity today, the number is expected to grow to 90 percent by 2020, according to the consulting group Machina Research. And tech firms are looking to cash in.
But these companies want to do more than just put apps in a car’s dashboard, they want to reinvent the entire driving experience—starting by personalizing it.
The personalized ‘computer’ car
Tech companies will use a passenger’s personal information to make their drive time a lot more customized, said Gary Silberg, an analyst at KPMG.
“If you think about the personalization of cars in the future, in 20 years or less, the car will be able to tell if you own it or not, it will know your traits and attributes and will do things that will help make you a better, smarter, more productive person,” he said.
“The car will be this intelligent computer that provides you mobility,” he added.
The software in cars will enable it to do things like make music recommendations for your ride depending on your mood and even sync with your calendar and monitor traffic so that it can alert you when to leave for your next appointment, Silberg said.
Because software will play such an important role in the future car experience, Apple and Google are already pushing to get their operating systems in vehicles.
Apple’s CarPlay, which was announced in March, basically brings the interface of a person’s iPhone to the car’s infotainment center, allowing a driver to control things like music, messages and calls from their phone via voice or a built-in display. It can also predict where a user most likely wants to go based on addresses from your email, text messages, contacts and calendars.
Google announced a similar system in June called Android Auto. Both companies’ auto platforms are expected to become available on select vehicles before the end of this year.
In fact, the technology in cars is already becoming the most important determining factors for consumers when it comes to which car to buy.
“The interface is now the reason a car is selling or not selling. It’s not about things like horsepower anymore,” Reimer said.
However, the user-interface will get an even bigger makeover when self-driving technology goes mainstream because it will allow for the physical space in the car to be used in new ways.
For tech companies, time spent driving is time spent wasted, said Thilo Kosowski, a vice president and automotive analyst at Gartner.
“Tech companies look at the car as something they need to deal with,” Kosowski said. “They see manual driving as a bug, not as a value proposition.”
Tech firms view autonomous vehicles as the solution to a number of problems that plague the streets, including traffic, car accidents and parking. Self-driving tech could also enable vehicles to become more productive tools for passengers.
For example, the windshield could be transformed into an augmented reality platform, or a screen for the passenger to project content from their mobile device onto, Koslowski said.
Google is leading the charge amongst its tech peers in the autonomous space and is also putting pressure on traditional automakers to catch-up.
“Google is the big elephant in the room,” said Koslowski. “It was really a wake-up call for the auto industry when it unveiled its self-driving car capabilities.”
The company has been developing self-driving car technology since 2009. And in May the company revealed a new model of its autonomous car that has no brake or steering wheel. It plans to manufacture 200 of these new models to test and predicts its version of the self-driving car will hit the mass market sometime between 2017 to 2020.
While the world’s traditional automakers are hurrying to develop their own autonomous vehicles, their efforts may be too late.
According to a KPMG study published last year, consumers are more likely to buy a self-driving car from a tech firm like Apple or Google than they are from a carmaker like Nissan, Mercedes-Benz or General Motors.
But consumers’ trust in tech companies may be somewhat misguided, experts say.
“The tech companies are pushing the traditional auto industry, which to some extent is good, but if you push too fast they are going to make mistakes,” Reimer said.
While people may like a high-tech car, they still have some concerns about how safe a self-driving vehicle would be.
According to KPMG’s Global Executive Survey 2014, safety is the biggest concern over self-driving cars and privacy and data security are also high on consumers’ agenda.
And the reality is, traditional automakers and suppliers have more experience in auto safety than the new tech companies entering the space, Silberg said.
“They may have great technology, but that doesn’t mean they know how to make it work in a car,” he said.
“There are parts of a vehicle that if caused to malfunction, people could die. You can’t just reboot your car at 60 mph. There is a safety tolerance in the auto industry that is just not known in the tech industry.”
While Google’s self-driving cars have gone more than 700,000 miles without being faulted for an accident, its cars still can’t endure all weather conditions.
And all it takes is just one accident for progress to be halted, Reimer said.
“There’s a major push by Google and other tech companies to automate the world, but the reality is a failure could mean big changes,” Reimer said.
“Fear could not only slow adoption down, but could also mean more regulations. And hasty regulation and more regulation is not necessarily the best regulation.”