Screens are becoming the defining element in automotive interiors. They are the focal point of the software-defined vehicle, and infotainment is the automotive arena’s most hotly contested frontier.
And yet with technology so democratized and affordable, nearly every automaker has access to the brightest screens and quickest processors, which means spending big bucks on a luxury vehicle no longer guarantees the hottest infotainment hardware on the block. This is compounded by the fact that the software tying the entire effort together is often shared, too. Google’s Android Automotive OS, for example, counts Ford, Volvo, Stellantis, BMW, and Honda among its flock, while Linux (Red Hat), and Blackberry (ONX) have made extensive in-roads in offering operating systems to various vehicle builders. Companies such as Apple are even threatening a full take-over by scheming to install its iOS straight from the factory.
There’s a battle between automakers and software operating-system suppliers for control of the dashboard. As standardization increasingly becomes the order of the day, how can a car company preserve and polish its brand?
Best and Brightest
Key to the entire infotainment enterprise is the internal software design team. Most automakers have transitioned from relying entirely on third-party software suppliers into considering bits-and-bytes a core competency in Detroit, Stuttgart, and Tokyo, with varying results.
General Motors’s software-defined vehicle division, for example, now counts 6000 employees under its banner. “We’re going after the same talent as Google, Apple, and Meta,” says Gary Cygan, the company’s director of software-defined vehicle product management. “The types of people and skill sets that you want for vehicle infotainment is the same as what you want for consumer electronics.”
Dr. Michael Hafner, vice president of MB.OS and MBUX at Mercedes-Benz, points out that the German automaker has been writing software for its drivetrain and vehicle control systems in-house for more than 20 years. It has since broadened that effort to infotainment. “All vehicle companies are going deeper into software, but to differing degrees,” he says. “Which modules you have to own, versus where you can partner or use something off the shelf is likely to remain fluid, maybe forever.”
This mixing-and-matching between a third-party code and in-house interfaces represents the skirmish line in the infotainment wars. Design teams flex their muscle by creating a visual, interactive layer on top of a potentially shared software infrastructure that the driver sees as unique to the brand.
“We have two different products,” explains Haris Ramic, Google’s lead project manager for Android Automotive OS. “The first is the operating system, which ships without any Google apps such as Maps or the Play store. The second is our service layer, which focuses on integrating those apps into the infotainment setup.”
While it’s possible to combine these two products, a number of automakers, including Stellantis, only make use of the open-source version of Google’s OS. “It’s up to the automaker to decide whether to partner with Google for additional services or not,” Ramic adds.
Volvo sits at the other end of the spectrum and incorporates numerous Google services—easily recognizable from the world of mobile phones—into its infotainment system. As a result, Volvo’s infotainment setup dramatically differs from those of the Stellantis brands. This is in spite of the fact that both automakers employ the same operating system.
“We customize every layout and button, every flow from one screen to the next, and the appearance of the visual ‘skin’ we lay over top of it,” says Vince Galante, global head of user experience at Stellantis.
Differences in the Details
Companies with multiple brands, such as Stellantis, GM, and Toyota, face the additional challenge of infotainment differentiation between nameplates. “We have squads dedicated to each brand, working alongside a global Stellantis group,” says Galante.
Overlap is unavoidable, but there are numerous tricks designers deploy to better define the user experience for a given brand. Toyota and Lexus products often share the same on-screen layout and back-end hardware, according to Charan Lota, Toyota’s group vice president for connected technologies, but Lexus focuses more on detail and hard-edged presentation versus the bulkier, “playful” design found on the dashboard of vehicles such as the Tundra pickup.
Similarly, GM’s move to bigger, wraparound screens in the likes of the Cadillac Escalade and Lyriq stands in contrast to the more modest displays in the company’s lesser models. Systems also deliver unique animations specific to off-road features found in trucks such as the GMC Canyon AT4X. “Animations are important, but physical touches throughout the cabin are coming through more than perhaps was highlighted in the past between brands,” says Liz Gelfusa, the company’s senior manager of branded partnerships.
Building the Brand
The end goal of any automaker, says John Wall, head of Blackberry’s QNX division, is to create a distinct software ecosystem for each car. “That’s the differentiator on the modern market, and a way to keep a car fresh with regular updates,” he continues. “Brand is extremely important to every automaker we’ve ever worked with. It’s one of the tensions that’s regularly encountered when automakers partner with third parties.”
Those updates, increasingly accessed via over-the-air wireless networks, require that automakers build tomorrow’s cars, trucks, and SUVs on a platform that facilitates this type of future growth. At Mercedes-Benz, for instance, a mishmash of competing hardware specifications and software systems in the past made it difficult to keep the infotainment system of its cars state-of-the-art after delivery. Its new MB.OS, which sits on top of base-level software sourced from Linux and QNX, allows for quicker, standardized updates and feature roll-out.
A similar philosophy guides the General Motors Ultifi platform, which is poised to reach the market in 2023, and Toyota is also knee-deep in facing a similar challenge. “Our vehicles tend to last forever. I’ve got a 2001 Lexus in my garage at home,” says Toyota’s Lota. “When we look at future-proofing our hardware, we have to ask ourselves ‘what we can push to this system OTA eight years from now while still maintaining security?'”
When Will Apple and Google Take Over?
Despite Apple’s ambitions to impose a native iOS experience on drivers, there’s little interest from automakers in completely giving over the dashboard to a third party.
“I struggle with this idea ever being implemented,” says QNX’s Wall. “Maybe a start-up EV automaker that’s trying to make a really cheap vehicle will let Apple have the entire car, but as we move from [internal combustion] to EVs, the interior experience becomes so important as drivetrain and suspension fade, and for traditional brands, that’s a tough sell.”
There’s also the question of whether customers would rather have a Mercedes-Benz that looks and feels like an iPhone, or one that looks and feels like a Mercedes-Benz, per Dr. Hafner, suggesting that the latter is more in line with owner expectations.
To their credit, some current supplier partners have downplayed their interest in assuming a larger role. “Google’s perspective is to look to how we can provide commonality, save costs, and enable a brand to shine,” says Ramic. Just as software may have once not been a core competency of the automotive world’s biggest names, there are also those who consider it a stretch to assume companies that made their name with phones and laptops are able to dive in and dominate on the highway.
“Apple CarPlay and Android Auto provide a great user experience, but there’s so much complexity to manage and orchestrate in a modern vehicle, and it’s not an easy task,” says Lota. “We have to be mindful when we talk about ‘giving up the dash’ because it’s not just infotainment we’re discussing. The safety of the vehicle going down the road belongs to Toyota—cyber security, too—and I just don’t see a third party yet ready to take on that responsibility.”
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