How Apple, Google and BlackBerry are fighting to control the future of Smart Cars

The Internet-connected car is coming, and Google, Apple and BlackBerry are ready. Who will prevail when a new breed of smartcars hits the road?

Car superimposed with computer parts

Who will prevail when a new breed of Internet-connected car hits the road? (Illustration by Sean McCabe)

The partners at Toronto-based mobile strategy and development shop BNOTIONS were so excited about the idea of the Internet-connected car that they went out and bought the latest Tesla Model S, just to get their employees thinking about it.

The legendary electric car—list price: a cool $130,000, with all the options—comes with a giant touch screen mounted on the dash, which runs a web browser hooked up to the car’s own Internet connection. To spark their creativity, employees can book this “laptop on wheels” for an afternoon, or maybe even for an evening, which doesn’t seem like a bad proposition.

There’s only one problem: you can’t make apps for it.

“We’ve got a bunch of really excited engineers here,” says Alkarim Nasser, BNOTIONS’ managing partner, “but the reality is there’s nothing you can really do with it yet.”

The Tesla’s “in-vehicle infotainment system” lacks an application programming interface—a way for programmers to tap into a computer system and write apps for it. Like most car computers today, the way it comes out of the box is the way it stays.

That’s about to change. The Internet-connected car is making its way to the mass market. That car will do all the things a computer does. It will run apps like a tablet or a laptop. It will learn from you in ways you don’t expect. It will try to sell things to you. It might even be useful.

But first, there’s going to be a fight about just how these connected cars are going to work, and whose smartphones they’re going to resemble. A crew of familiar players—Apple, Google, and BlackBerry—are jockeying for position, and an industry full of would-be app-makers is waiting to see which way the chips will fall. It’s a high-stakes battle: one British automotive consultancy estimates that the global connected car market will be worth $61 billion by 2018.

The infotainment systems that you see on high-end dashboards, like the Tesla’s, have traditionally been homegrown systems that vary from one car to the next. Carmakers tend to see those systems as product differentiators and exercises in offering a unique brand experience, says Tony Stone, a connected-device executive at IBM in Detroit. App-makers, however, see this as a hindrance: when no two car computers are the same, it’s not practical to write software for them.

With that in mind, Apple and Google are forging ahead onto the dashboard. Apple’s technology, called CarPlay, will turn a car’s systems into an extension of your iPhone as long as it’s plugged in, while Google, working with an alliance of carmakers that includes Honda, Audi and General Motors, is developing a model that could see the car’s own systems running on Android.

Either approach would open the door for a whole new class of automotive apps, which could talk to the car’s on-board systems on one hand, and the world at large on the other. Parking apps, for instance, can use the Internet to check in with parking authorities and advise drivers of available spots. More cutting-edge ideas would use real-time analytics, the kind enabled by the hundreds of sensors in today’s cars—what Nasser calls “the really exciting stuff.” If carmakers decide to allow app-makers to access data about how the car is being driven, apps could coach the driver into using less gas. Then there’s the other, inevitable, destination for any Internet connection: marketing. “People want the ability to do commerce from their car,” says Stone. “Consumers are expecting that kind of interaction.”

An app might keep an eye on the car’s fuel gauge and not only proactively suggest gas stations that are nearby, but match their driver’s loyalty-card preference. For both Apple and Google, the fight for dashboards is more than just part of their broader turf war to bring consumers into their respective ecosystems. Tim Tang, an analyst at IDC in Toronto, suggests that for Apple, this is essentially a media play, broadening the reach of its iTunes music, film and app-selling empire and ultimately encouraging people to buy more Apple hardware.

Google, on the other hand, is notoriously hungry for data. Access to information about exactly how and where millions of people are driving would further its advertising ventures. (And, lest we forget, Google is one of the pioneers of the self-driving car, which continues to lurk just offstage.)

“It’s about information, it’s about transaction, it’s about e-commerce,” says Tang, pointing to the big question hanging over all these plans. “If it’s about all that, it’s about privacy.”

The more cars know, and the more cars talk, the more that the data security and privacy will be critical. Consumers have been willing to let technology companies keep tabs on where they surf and where they take their phones, but when you’re physically inside your computer as it hurtles down the highway, the stakes are higher.

While a car’s infotainment system won’t have the power to veer the steering wheel on the highway, the fact that all these systems are connected means that malware picked up on the Internet could have unforeseen consequences. Over the years, security researchers have found ways to hack into car computers, ranging from accessing maintenance ports to hijacking signals from wireless tire-pressure gauges.

This could be a selling point for an unlikely competitor in this arena: BlackBerry. The smartphone maker owns an operating system called QNX, which has a reputation for reliability and security. (Among other things, it’s used for real-time control systems in nuclear power plants.) QNX has also become a favourite of automakers, which have built their proprietary in-car entertainment systems on top of it.

“QNX is so pervasive already,” says Tang. “Carmakers know them, respect them, trust them. There’s a history of a relationship there.” Tang says that, under the leadership of its new, enterprise-focused CEO John Chen, BlackBerry’s strategy is up in the air, and anything is possible.

Android, Apple and QNX options aren’t mutually exclusive. For instance, CarPlay can run on a system that’s based on QNX, simply handing control of the car’s screen and audio over to the iPhone when it’s connected. A QNX system could run Android apps. And some automakers, like Hyundai, are working with Apple and Google simultaneously.

Ultimately, however, before developers like Nasser can get their teeth into making apps for cars, Detroit and Silicon Valley are going to have to work through a basic culture clash. Carmakers lock down their hardware offerings years in advance, while smartphone makers pump out new devices quarterly, with software updates by the hour. Carmakers like differentiation, while technology companies like standards. Carmakers are accustomed to control, while technology companies prefer openness.

Google says it expects Android-enabled devices to hit the market within the year, and Apple’s CarPlay will appear in 2015 Hyundai models, among others. And then, for the drivable computer and those who would program it, the open road.