scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Google and Apple vying for your dashboard

Jeff Chiu

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — When Google hosted a boot camp this month for its Android operating system, there were some new faces in the room: automakers.

They made the trip to learn about Android Auto, a dashboard system meant to let a smartphone power a car’s center screen. Tasks as varied as navigation, communicating, and playing music, apps all constantly talking to the cloud. And to the driver. A similar scene is playing out at Apple, where its rival CarPlay system was developed for iPhone users.

Autos have become the latest obsession for Silicon Valley, with Apple assigning about 200 engineers to work on electric vehicle technology and Google saying it envisions the public using driverless cars within five years. But nowhere is the obsession playing out more immediately than in the battle to develop the next generation of dashboard systems. In coming months, dealerships across the country will begin selling vehicles capable of running Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, or both.

The systems go far beyond current Bluetooth pairing for playing music or making hands-free calls and allow Google’s or Apple’s system to take over the center screen and certain buttons in the car.


“Consumers have spoken,” said John Maddox, assistant director of the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center. “They expect to have coordination between their phone and their vehicle.”

Android Auto is about to debut after two years in development. Plug in a smartphone with a USB cord and the system powers up on a car’s screen. The phone’s screen goes dark, not to be touched while driving. Apple’s CarPlay works similarly, with bubbly icons for phone calls, music, maps, messaging, and other apps appearing on the car’s center screen.

While the idea of constantly connected drivers raises concerns about distracted driving, the companies say their systems make cellphone-toting drivers safer.


“We looked at what people do with their phones in the car, and it was scary,” said Andrew Brenner, who heads Google’s Android Auto team. “You want to say to them, ‘Yikes, no, don’t do that.’ ”

Google built its own driver-distraction lab. Android Auto, for example, has no “back” button like the smartphone version. No “recents” button, either. Google Maps was adjusted to make fonts bigger and streets less detailed, for easier reading while driving. No action should take more than two seconds — consistent with the Transportation Department’s voluntary guidelines.

“Things that we don’t show are just as important as what we do show,” Brenner said.

Music is most definitely in. Streaming video? Most definitely not. Most social media will be blocked, and texts can be sent only with voice commands. Apps on the screen are optimized for speed: glance, touch, and eyes back to the road. “We want something that’s very glanceable, that can be seen and done quickly,” he said.

When the Android Auto project began, it included a core group of automakers like General Motors, Audi, Honda, and Hyundai. Now, about two dozen have signed on. Apple has teamed up with about the same number of brands.

Most carmakers are mum on start dates, but Hyundai is expected to act shortly, and Volkswagen has indicated availability for its next Golf. GM has said the same about its Spark subcompact. One of the most widespread adopters will be Ford. But not all automakers are sold on giving up their dashboards to the tech giants.


John Hanson, a Toyota executive, said the company talked with Google and Apple but has no plans to adopt Android Auto or CarPlay in the United States.