Detroit Auto Show: Carmakers Push for Google, Apple Integration Despite Risks

BMW Detroit Auto Show - H 2014
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

BMW Detroit Auto Show - H 2014

The 2014 North American International Auto Show was less about cars than it was about connecting those cars to smartphones and tablets -- at all costs.

It's a measure of the increasing co-dependence between the auto and tech industries that both are infiltrating each other's products -- and even trade shows -- as never before.

At the CES International technology show in Las Vegas earlier this month, a record nine automakers were on hand tub-thumping high-speed Internet connectivity that turns cars into rolling Wi-Fi hotspots, as well as tech that allows cars to drive themselves. Audi, especially, made waves by announcing it was incorporating Google's Android operating system directly into its cars' navigation and infotainment systems.

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So it came as no surprise that at the North American International Auto Show, which opened to the public Jan. 18 in Detroit after two days of press previews, tech and telecommunications companies were as pervasive as the gaudy concept cars unveiled amid clouds of artificial fog.

While there were significant vehicles introduced at Detroit -- among them Mercedes' all-new C-Class, which aims to solidify the market share of Mercedes' best-selling entry-level luxury car by imbuing it with tech wonders traded down from its flagship S-Class, as well the revival of Porsche's beloved Targa model -- the real lesson of the show was how technology is reshaping cars and, with them, the driving experience.

It is no longer business as usual when self-driving cars are not only inevitable but may be widely available by 2020 -- Mercedes and Audi already have working prototypes derived from lightly modified stock vehicles. Or when BMW is banking on consumers embracing its ultra-green $41,000 i3 electric and (here's looking at you, Tesla) $136,000 i8 high-performance plug-in hybrid, which will be introduced this spring. Or when Chevrolet announces, as it did at Detroit, that it will offer 4G LTE connectivity -- once the province of luxury brands like Audi and Bentley -- across most of its vehicle line by year's end.

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The convergence of cars and tech is driven by considerations at the corporate level -- tightening federal fuel-efficiency standards are partly behind the increasing reliance on aluminum and carbon fiber in place of steel, as demonstrated by Ford's new F150 pickup, unveiled at the show, which is 700 pounds lighter than its predecessor.

But consumer demand for seamless integration of smartphones and tablets is causing carmakers to remake their vehicles into hubs of connectivity -- not only between the car, driver and passengers, but also with other cars and one's personal infrastructure -- the ballyhooed "internet of everything," in which connected devices such as a home thermostat communicates with your car's telemetrics and switches on your air conditioning five minutes before you arrive. (Mercedes and Nest, the maker of smart thermostats, will introduce just such a system this spring.)

The demand for car connectivity is seen as so crucial that auto manufacturers are giving unprecedented access to Apple, Google and companies as far afield as Technicolor to embed their technologies into their vehicles' proprietary infotainment systems. Not that carmakers are happy about it. At the Los Angeles auto show in November, a Southern California Porsche dealer told THR that "the [car] designers resent the technology manufacturers. Porsche has developed this new system for the 918 Spyder where they've actually out-iPadded the iPad -- they are very proud of the fact that their touch system works better."

Allowing Google, which has been particularly aggressive about entering and then dominating new markets such as smartphones, such unfettered access would seem a risky proposition, but carmakers say they have no choice. A senior executive at a major auto manufacturer told THR in Detroit that making his company's infotainment systems compatible with the hundreds of models of smartphones, tablets and other devices would be insurmountable without the cooperation of third-party technology providers like Google and Apple. And the consequences of not having reliable connectivity were too dire to contemplate. "People demand it -- we must have it," the executive said.

Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, downplayed the significance of integrating Android and other third-party technology into his company's cars.

"We have Wi-Fi embedded in the car via Qualcomm just like you do with your laptop," Keogh said. "I think there's a myth that says all of a sudden we're handcuffed as a company -- am I an Android car or am I an [Apple] iOS car? That's not really the case. Right now we have Google in all of our cars, but of course we have great capabilities with Apple as well. We're always looking for the best solution, and if you look at maps, it's Google. That's what I use, that's what everyone uses. They're the masters."

Mercedes and Google formed a strategic partnership in 2012 that will eventually include integration with the Google Glass eyeglass computer when it is officially introduced. But Mercedes is also a partner in Apple's iOS for the Car. "We're very agnostic in terms of connectivity," Johann Jungwirth, president/CEO of Mercedes research and development, North America, said in Detroit. "We basically want to offer solutions for all the smart phone OSes out there."

All of which points to a future in which connected cars get ever more connected.

"Why we're rolling this out aggressively is because people are using it," Keogh said. "If you look at the terabytes of data being downloaded, we know people like it -- 70 percent of Audi cars go out with Audi connect installed. It's working well for us."