Google Auto Faces German Resistance as Audi Guards Data

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Google's Self-Driving Car
German carmakers aren’t just concerned about whether Google is successful one day with a self-driving car, but also about sharing the fate of the mobile phone makers who lost importance after Google introduced its Android operating system. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Google Inc.’s push into cars is meeting growing opposition in Germany, where lawmakers are backing the likes of Audi and Mercedes-Benz as they seek to limit the software company’s access under the hood.

Like in a smartphone, Google’s Android Auto will let drivers interact with their cars’ music and navigation systems. What carmakers don’t want, though, is for Android to control cars just as it does phones and tablets.

That also worries German politicians. They don’t want the country’s flagship industry to have its importance diluted if Google gains access to data on the behavior and whereabouts of cars and their passengers. And if the German manufacturers who dominate the technologically innovative luxury segment aren’t ready to play along, Google may find it more difficult to penetrate the industry as a whole.

“The data that we collect is our data and not Google’s data,” Audi Chief Executive Officer Rupert Stadler said, echoing comments from Volkswagen AG CEO Martin Winterkorn and Daimler AG CEO Dieter Zetsche. “When it gets close to our operating system, it’s hands off.”

Already concerned about Google’s market power, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government wants to prevent the Mountain View, California-based company from building a monopoly position as a partner for developing cars that will ultimately drive themselves. The automotive industry accounted for 6.5 percent of all taxable revenue in Germany in 2012, according to the Federal Statistical Office, making it the country’s biggest manufacturing sector.

Google-Dependent

“We mustn’t under any circumstances let our development become dependent on companies like Google,” said Joachim Pfeiffer, spokesman for Merkel’s parliamentary bloc on economic and energy policy.

The market for assisted-driving software may reach 20 billion euros ($25 billion) by 2030, consulting firm Roland Berger said this month.

Google spokesman Klaas Flechsig declined to comment on political opposition to the software maker’s plans.

The company no longer has a target for the first Android Auto cars to be on the streets by the end of this year, Flechsig said. He declined to comment further on timing.

When Economy and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel met Google Chairman Eric Schmidt in Berlin on Oct. 14, he told the American executive that he “admires Google -- but I also admire the skills of an engineer who can build a car.” The European Union wants to establish its own “data architecture” to support economic growth, Gabriel said.

Industry Lessons

Lessons from the mobile-phone industry are fresh on executives’ and regulators’ minds. As more consumers relied on mobile applications and services, Android forced handset makers such as Samsung Electronics Co. and HTC Corp. to comply with its standards, largely stripping them of their individual strengths. Within five years of the operating system’s introduction, European players Nokia Oyj and Ericsson AB quit making phones entirely.

The more Google and other software makers manage to embed themselves in the ecosystem of a car, the more consumer money will go to technology companies instead of carmakers, said Juergen Reiner, a partner at consulting company Oliver Wyman.

“There’s one point where carmakers can protect themselves from someone wedging themselves in between the producers and the customers,” Reiner said. “It’s about the data that’s created in and around the car.”

Open Automotive

In January, Google announced its Open Automotive Alliance. Structured as a partnership with carmakers, the project aims to bring the Android platform to autos. German carmakers have been slow to join, however: Mercedes parent Daimler and premium-auto industry leader BMW are, so far, among the group’s standout absentees. Volkswagen and its Audi brand joined but said they want to limit Google’s access to core information from vehicles.

BMW is still considering whether to use Android Auto and in the meantime has been moving forward with Apple Inc.’s CarPlay, which displays a version of iPhone applications on a car’s dashboard, said Niklas Drechsler, a spokesman at the Munich-based manufacturer. Daimler, meanwhile, still plans to join the Open Automotive Alliance, and “we’re talking to Google” about terms, said Katharina Becker, a spokeswoman at the Stuttgart-based company.

Politicians’ View

The underlying anxiety was clear in a position paper Merkel’s Christian Democrats presented at the party’s annual conference in Cologne on Dec. 10.

“Soon, the performance of car digital systems will play at least as big a role in consumers’ purchasing decisions as the company that builds the car,” the party wrote. Internet-enhanced driving “opens enormous potential for German carmakers and suppliers, which are mainly medium-sized companies.”

Google is in “intensive discussions” with carmakers to develop technologies that would slash the number of accidents, cut emissions with more efficient transport routes and allow cities to reduce the number of parking lots, Jens Redmer, the software producer’s director of business development for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said last month.

One key will be setting up a shared database to swap and analyze information with manufacturers, he said.

“We see ourselves as partners rather than someone who turns the whole business upside down,” Redmer said.

Or carmakers could just look elsewhere.

Information Conduit

Phone companies including Vodafone Group Plc and Deutsche Telekom AG are hoping to wedge themselves between automakers and software companies.

With carmakers eager to stay in control, Vodafone would function only as a conduit for information, said Erik Brenneis, who heads the Newbury, England-based company’s connected-car business. For example, Vodafone wouldn’t interject itself into the drivers’ experience by sending coupons for the closest McDonald’s, he said.

“We don’t want to challenge manufacturers on what to do with the data,” Brenneis said.

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