Few automotive product decisions in recent years have been as controversial as General Motors opting to kill off Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in future electric vehicles. While automakers are (perhaps understandably) scared of ceding their in-car experiences and data to tech companies, users have come to trust Apple and Google for functionality after years of lackluster native experiences. After all, even if your car's infotainment system doesn't make you want to put your fist through the touchscreen, you probably think it's handily outclassed by your smartphone.
But GM's chief crosstown rival has a very different answer to this conundrum: "We get it." At a media briefing last week to unveil the new Ford and Lincoln Digital Experience software suite, Ford executives said this system won't just work with the popular smartphone mirroring setups but elevate both to new levels.
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The battle is on for your dashboard
Few automakers have taken as bold a step as GM took in removing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto from cars, but they want to compete with the tech companies in major ways too. In the years to come, we will see many different approaches to that.
"I can't overemphasize the importance of openness" to software partners like Apple and Google, said Hadi Saab, Ford's director of product management for infotainment and cabin systems. "We think customers will love our integrated services. But we also can't underestimate how much they love Apple CarPlay and Android Auto."
In many ways, this situation perfectly symbolizes the automotive industry's transformation—one that goes deeper than just batteries and electric motors.
Software is widely seen as the key to the future the industry currently envisions: connected, increasingly autonomous, powered by the over-the-air feature updates pioneered by Tesla, and driven by revenue from apps and subscription services. But after years of being lambasted by owners for their subpar tech experiences that lagged far behind smartphones and other consumer devices, the car business has a long way to go to catch up—and to prove to owners that they even can.
So while nearly every auto brand is investing heavily in software, trying to hire the best engineers out there and even bring development in-house, there's also an element of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Even GM's new Ultium EV software suite leans very heavily on Google's ecosystem.
Even so, GM has said the buck stops at smartphone mirroring programs. The automaker has said Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have compatibility issues and interfere with plans for map-driven autonomy, EV route-planning and other key features.
Ford, however, is taking a different approach by offering those programs even as it tries to build up confidence in its own, revised interface. Saab said that Ford's own data shows more than 50% of customers use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
"There will always be those hardcore users who are for [smartphone] projection," Saab added. "We know, as we offer those services, the integrated services we're building in our vehicles—customers will start loving those as well." He also added that Amazon is a major tech player here, as the cars offer access to Alex Built-In and various Amazon-related apps.
But while smartphone use behind the wheel is a major source of dangerous distracted driving, Ford's answer is to beef up its voice control systems, allowing drivers to issue navigation commands and access various functions just by speaking.
Moreover, the new Lincoln Digital Experience cockpit launching in the 2024 Lincoln Nautilus shows what's possible. During last week's media presentation, Brian Nash, a digital product line manager for Ford's Model e division, said a navigation map created with Apple CarPlay can also be projected onto the panoramic 48-inch display across the dashboard—it is not just limited to the smaller central touchscreen.
On many modern cars, Apple CarPlay often takes a backseat to the kind of native map features automakers are trying to push now, leaving the user to have to switch between the two interfaces to access different functions. But the Lincoln's system offers users the choice of the native system or Apple's or Google's, depending on their preference; either one can be used on the car's biggest display unit.
"Right now, [on a conventional vehicle], if I want to change audio or navigation or do something different, I'm taken away to do that," Nash said of Apple CarPlay. No so on the Lincoln. He demonstrated this by navigating to a gas station on his iPhone, and then mirroring that map on the Nautilus' larger panoramic display. "The flexibility of that screen is huge," Nash said. The same, he said, is true of music apps like Spotify and iHeartRadio when accessed via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. No longer must a driver switch between Ford's system and Apple's system to get what they want.
Whether they like it or not, the automakers are probably stuck with Google, Apple and the rest for a very long time. Ford's approach seems to be to just go with it. We'll see how customers respond as this software suite gets rolled out to more electric and gas-powered cars in the years to come.
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