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What GM's Adoption of Google's Android Really Means

September 10, 2019

 

The fight for the dashboard has been an ongoing software battle for more than a decade. But in recent years, it has lost much of its significance given that most drivers use smartphones for infotainment functions rather than built-in systems. So GM's recent announcement that it would begin using Android embedded in the dash wasn't much of a surprise.

 

With IFA's Shift Automotive exhibition underway in Berlin, a lot more attention has focused on the car as a rolling computer. So many people were curious about GM's deal with the company that spawned Waymo, Adsense, and also owns Waze.

 

In one technical sense, GM's adoption of Google's Android is interesting only on a superficial level. Some reports mistakenly referred to the change as GM using the Android OS. It is not. It is not an OS. The software that runs the car and touches on important driving systems is another thing entirely, and Android has nothing to do with that.

 

Android will only handle infotainment apps—software that doesn't touch any important systems in the car—and won't have access to power or safety systems. You probably still won't be able to use it to boost the AC or turn down the heat. (Although GM was vague about that.)

 

The move is analogous to Sony using Android TV in its flatscreen televisions. It is just easier to let Google handle the endlessly onerous updates of apps and the addition of trendy new ones than for the manufacturer (in this case GM) do it themselves. So technically, the change is not terribly significant or important. From a business perspective, however, it's blockbuster stuff.

 

For Google, it's access to 17 percent of the U.S. car market. Monitoring what drivers do behind the wheel helps fill in the very few gaps where the tech giant doesn't know exactly what you're up every moment of the day. More data, more marketing opportunities, more money for Google.

 

So how much data will GM get out of the deal or who gets what analytics from all this? GM and Google aren't saying. They also offered few details about privacy (hello, Europe?). However, GM learned years ago a lesson Google has yet to learn: Drivers assiduously guard their privacy behind the wheel. Whether that attitude has changed for the latest generation of drivers remains to be seen.

 

Even after Android debuts in 2021 on some Buick, Cadillac, and Chevy models, Apple CarPlay will still be included. So will GM's OnStar; after all, nothing beats the human touch when you're in an emergency.

 

So what would be big news in the software-car space? When Waymo cuts its first deal with an OEM, we'll let you know.

 

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