Automakers Wary of Handset Fate as Google and Apple Enter Cars

Toyota Motor Corp. hasn’t had to worry too much about Google Inc. as a competitor so far. That’s beginning to change in the eyes of customers like Jeff Carpenter.

The 43-year-old engineer has a smartphone with the search giant’s Android software that can predict where he’s likely to drive next and how long it will take to get there. The problem is that those features aren’t available in his Camry or any other Toyota. So Carpenter, who has been a loyal customer since he was in his 20s, is switching to another carmaker.

“The Google ecosystem knows me now,” said Carpenter, who lives in Des Moines, Iowa. “Android Auto is something that’s powerful enough for me that it’s going to sway my choice.”

Toyota and the auto industry face a dilemma: As Google and Apple Inc. begin to move into their business, automakers must decide whether to hold them off and risk losing customers like Carpenter or embrace their technology and open the door to two of the most feared names in technology.

Apple and Google aren’t making cars of course, at least not yet. But they’re building technology for in-car navigation, communication and entertainment, and both have openly speculated about moving further into the auto business. The risk is that automakers end up like mobile phone companies -- low-margin hardware makers -- while the Silicon Valley giants cash in.

“When companies like Apple and Google get their toes wet in something, there’s always a long-term strategy,” Mark Boyadjis, an analyst at IHS Automotive, said by phone. “There are going to be holdouts because some of these automakers are not yet convinced that Google and Apple will truly be a partner in developing this kind of technology.”

Maintaining Control

Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, is the leading holdout thus far and is partnering with Ford Motor Co. to use technology it’s developed to maintain more control of how its connectivity systems are designed.

General Motors Co. and Hyundai Motor Co., on the other hand, will be among the earliest adopters, having taken the view that there’s little use fighting what they expect customers will want.

For a growing number of consumers, especially younger ones who expect to be connected all the time, it matters less how much horsepower their cars pack, or what the brands supposedly say about their social status or aspirations, than whether they offer a screen that works like their phone.

“We all agreed, ‘This is what our customers use. Let’s not make it more complicated than it needs to be,’” Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive officer, wrote in a May 28 post on LinkedIn. The automaker is outfitting models within all four of its brands -- Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC -- with Android Auto and CarPlay.

Ubiquitous Features

Hyundai also sees little reason to stand in the way. The 2015 Sonata became the first model to make Android Auto available in the U.S. in May.

“We had agreed to move forward so early that we were really focused on leading,” said Cason Grover, head of connected-car technology for Hyundai. “We realized that, assuming these solutions got it right, they would end up being essentially ubiquitous in a fairly short period of time.”

Toyota has taken a wait-and-see approach. While Apple lists the world’s largest carmaker among those that will offer CarPlay, it’s still investigating issues surrounding customer-data protection and driver distraction.

Safety Concerns

“If different players can offer such safe mechanisms, that should be fine,” said Kenichi Murata, general manager of Toyota’s connected strategy and planning department. “But we believe that at this point in time, we have still yet to find an environment in which smartphones can be used safely to the degree that we can feel satisfied with.”

For now, Toyota’s solution has been turning to Ford rather than Google or Apple. In future Toyotas, the SmartDeviceLink technology created by Ford will let the Japanese carmaker keep control over how its touch-screen displays are designed, with large icons that are safe and easy to use.

Carpenter doesn’t buy Toyota’s concerns about data privacy. He lets Google Now access his Gmail and pick up on patterns in the way he uses his smartphone.

“You compare that to what I have now, where I have to speak to my car in these very structured sentences or it doesn’t know what I’m saying,” Carpenter said of Toyota’s own Entune system, which he rarely uses. “It’s just frustrating.”

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